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A Picture of Devotion
John James Audubon (1785-1851)

By LiNK PhD Candidate Alison Clarke

American painter John James Audubon (1785-1851) is most famous for his magnificent Birds of America, a huge and lavishly illustrated set of prints featuring some 435 hand-coloured plates. You can see a complete copy of this volume—a version of which was sold for over £7 million at Sotheby's in 2010—on display at the Central Library in Liverpool. Not so many people know, however, that Audubon actually spent time in Liverpool. One of the most poignant and intimate reminders of this connection is this self-portrait sketch, owned by the Victoria Gallery & Museum and dating from 1826.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) - Audubon’s self-portrait (1826)

This small, informal self-portrait in pencil and chalks is the only one that exists of Audubon. It shows him in profile, gazing wistfully off into the distance. His shoulder-length hair was apparently a particular hit with the ladies — and, indeed, the backstory to the drawing reveals a more human side to the gifted artist and naturalist.

Following a series of financial disasters back in the USA, Audubon travelled to Liverpool at the age of 41. He was hoping to find a publisher for the wildlife drawings he had been making and found lodgings with the wealthy Rathbone family of merchants at their home, Greenbank House. Now owned by the University of Liverpool and the site of several student halls of residence, this was then a country retreat set in lush rural surroundings. During his stay at the mansion, Audubon not only completed several oil paintings but found the time to sketch out this self-portrait. The house is mentioned in the drawing's inscription, which reads ‘Audubon at Green Bank. Almost Happy!! - September 1826’.

Greenbank House, Liverpool, c.1825

But why was Audubon only ‘almost’ happy during his stay at Greenbank House? Perhaps because he had fallen for Hannah Mary Rathbone, daughter of his hosts William and Elizabeth. He waxed lyrical in his diary on the 'brilliance' of her eyes. In an inscription on another drawing, he wrote longingly of ‘her benevolence! of her Filial love! of her Genial affections — her most kindly attentions and friendly Civilities to all to come to repose under this hospitable roof’. Audubon even presented this self-portrait to Hannah as a gift, and it still sits in a rosewood frame that she herself had made.

Alas, there is no sign that Hannah returned Audubon's affections. In hindsight, however, this seems like a wise decision on her part. After all, the artist did already have a wife and children back in America. Only a month before presenting this self-portrait to Hannah, Audubon had written to his wife Lucy: ‘It is now three long months since I pressed thy form to my bosom […] Absence from thee, my Lucy, is painful, believe me’. Audubon did eventually return to his wife in the USA, having gathered many subscribers for the forthcoming Birds of America. There is no evidence to suggest that, in the end, his fancy for Hannah Rathbone was anything more than an unrequited infatuation.