America’s Other Audubon
by Joy M. Kiser
Princeton Architectural Press, NY, NY, 2012
192 pp., illus. 4 b/w & 68 col. Trade, $45.00
Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa
America’s Other Audubon is a new large-format album of little-known ornithological plates by an all but unknown artist named Genevieve Estelle Jones (1847-1879). Her illustrations were originally published as hand-colored lithographs in 1886, just 10 years after she first saw an exhibition of John James Audubon’s astonishing lithographs (Birds of America) at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia.
Audubon’s images were highly dramatized, beautifully composed “bird portraits,” with scant attention to nests and eggs. The Jones plates are mostly the inverse: their purpose is to document the nests and eggs of 130 species of American birds, all of which were native to Ohio (and many in the rest of the country as well). Only rarely is a bird included.
This is an exquisite volume, designed by Bree Anne Apperley and published by Princeton Architectural Press, well-known for producing magnificent books. As a designer, I was attracted initially by the cover design (there’s an embossed texture on the side, in particular, that adds a delightfully rich effect), as well as the handsome simplicity of the plate that appears on the cover. Not only is that cover plate one of the book’s strongest illustrations, it is also, as the text explains, one of the few images that was entirely made by Jones herself.
There are reasons for this. As we learn from the introduction, there is a behind-the-scenes story about Genevieve Jones (and her family) that is largely tragic, with the result that it somewhat upstages the significance of her illustrations. In brief, the story goes like this:
Genevieve was one of two children of an Ohio physician named Nelson Jones and his wife Virginia (née Smith) Jones. In addition to being a country doctor, her father was an ardent amateur naturalist, while her mother’s brother was Hamilton Smith, a Yale-trained astronomer, who wrote one of the first science textbooks, helped to build (at age sixteen) the largest telescope at the time (1838) at the Yale Observatory, and (amazingly) patented the tintype camera, which, as a forerunner of snapshot cameras, became a major contributor to the popularity of photography.
The Jones and Smith families were both interesting and complicated. Even as youngsters, Genevieve and her younger brother Howard showed signs of impassioned interests in ornithology and other sciences. In addition, she was also skilled at various arts, including decorative painting, music, and dance. It was while researching birds (an interest that was equally shared by her father and brother) that the Jones family discovered that there was no sufficient book on identifying nests and eggs. So the Joneses began to consider the possibility of producing such a book.
But there were other unfortunate factors. At a time when people were generally shorter than now, Genevieve was unusually tall. She also was afflicted by a disfiguring skin disease. At nearly 30 years old and still unmarried, she was mutually attracted to a man who was 10 years older, of superior intelligence, but her parents (temperance advocates) concluded that he drank too much. They refused to allow them to marry, and (understandably) the daughter became despondent. Her father, with whom she had collected bird eggs and nests while accompanying him on his country doctor house calls, decided that he should encourage her to produce a book on nests and eggs. It would be “a project of her very own,” he reasoned, “one that would engage her passion for art and nature, and distract her from her sadness.”
But that’s not what eventually happened. With considerable assistance from her family and friends, she did make significant progress for several years, but then in 1879, she died at age 32 of typhoid fever. At the time she had only completed five of the book’s anticipated illustrations. The day before she died, she asked that her brother and mother take on the completion of the book. (Sadly, her former suitor committed suicide.)
To their credit, the Jones family worked devotedly on “Gennie’s book” for the next seven years, and the project was finally finished in 1886. It was a success in many ways, if not in others. At one point, as the author states, its “artwork was widely praised as equal to—or even better than—Audubon’s.” It may have been this claim that led to the choice of the title America’s Other Audubon. Unfortunately, however admirable (and significant historically) the achievements of Genevieve Jones and her family, and however engaging her story may be, the artwork in this book does not approach the quality of Audubon’s Birds of America. Audubon was Audubon, and if there were a short list for an “other Audubon,” the Jones family would not be on it.
Aside from that qualification, this is a worthy and admirable book. The plates are reproduced full-size, and included throughout are the field notes, written by Genevieve’s brother. It is a fine volume, and surely a welcome addition to women’s history, graphic design history, ornithology, and the too-often neglected tradition of scientific illustration.