America's Other Audubon


(This 1115th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 5, 2012.)


Jones' Painting of a Wood Thrush Nest


I recently received a copy of a beautiful art book, America's Other Audubon by Joy Kiser, published by Princeton Architectural Press. I believe that a copy should be shelved in every birder's library next to Audubon's own paintings.


This book has special meaning to me. Learning of this writing project, in 1998 I visited Kiser at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. I then wrote about the story she set out to tell in a December 14, 1998 column. Here is a reprise of that column:


* * *


Probably no one noticed the young woman who stood for so long before the exhibition of Audubon's Birds of America paintings at the 1876 Philadelphia World's Fair. Her face was scarred by illness and her parents' rejection of her former suitor added gloom to her countenance. But the art that captured her attention was to change not only her life but that of every member of her family as well.


Genevieve Jones returned to her home in Circleville, Ohio, her mind set upon producing her own volume of art. She would complement Audubon's bird portraits by illustrating their nests and eggs.


She had shown artistic talent in elementary school, a talent encouraged by her mother, an amateur artist herself, but Genevieve had no formal training and no experience whatever with lithography. Although her father, a physician, nourished her interest in natural history, taking Genny with him on long buggy-rides to visit country patients, she had no formal science training. But her family rallied around her and supported the enthusiasm that replaced her earlier depression.


The scene that followed must have been like one of those early Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies in which they say: "Let's put on a play." Genevieve's father would provide financial backing. A childhood friend would paint too. Genny's brother Howard, a Hobart graduate, would write species accounts. Their mother and neighborhood women would color the plates. Everyone pitched in.


A company in Cincinnati sold them lithographic supplies and even instructed the women in the techniques of lithography — by mail! Dr. Jones developed a prospectus for the work to be entitled Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of the Birds of Ohio and sold subscriptions. Their project was underway.


Remarkably, the first set of plates — the nests of Baltimore oriole, wood thrush and black-billed cuckoo — were soon completed and copies sent out to leading ornithologists for review. The responses were overwhelmingly positive: Elliott Coues said that there was "nothing since compare with the present work" and William Brewster added, "The Baltimore oriole seems...almost if not quite faultless;...the wood thrush is...a perfect masterpiece."


But now, almost immediately after receiving these encouraging accolades, 32-year old Genevieve Jones contracted typhoid and died. On her deathbed, however, she extracted promises from her family to continue her work.


As a memorial to her daughter, Virginia Jones reorganized the project and took over major responsibility for the original art. The 68 plates depicting 129 species were finally completed in 1883 and were bound in two volumes together with Howard's narratives.


The timing could not have been worse as the country was deep in a depression. Fewer than ten sets were sold by the time Genevieve's father died in 1901. By then his entire investment, the equivalent of over a million dollars today, had been depleted. Seemingly a sad ending to an extraordinary story.


* * *


But all was not lost. Now Joy Kiser's 14-year project has reached fruition. Her book is more than a reissue of the original Jones publication, with its striking depictions of bird nests and eggs. It is also a Jones family biography.


The Smithsonian Institution has two copies of the original Jones book. As its Natural-History Rare Books Curator Leslie Overstreet says in his Foreword: "For over one hundred years, ornithologists have consulted the book's meticulously detailed and scientifically accurate illustrations, but few beyond this specialized group even know that the book exists. Now you will have the pleasure of seeing all of the illustrations and reading the story behind them."


Despite her untimely death, Genevieve Jones goal has now been achieved. Joy Kiser has served not only the Jones but us as well by seeing this handsome book through to publication and recognition.