19th Century Bird Nest Art: A Family Story

(This column was first published in the December 14, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    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 bird 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, a central Ohio town, 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 art training and no experience whatever with lithography. Although her father, a physician, had nourished her interest in natural history, taking Genny with him on long buggy-rides to visit his country patients, she had no formal science training either. But her family rallied around her and supported the enthusiasm and excitement 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 had a role.

    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 Audubon…to 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."

(Note: The paintings of the wood thrush and indigo bunting nests included here are copies of copies and do no justice whatsoever to the warm colors and rich detail of the originals.)

    But now, almost immediately after receiving these encouraging accolades, 32 year old Genevieve Jones contracted typhoid and died. On her death bed, 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, together with Howard's narratives, they were bound in two volumes. 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.

    Fortunately, all is not lost. Joy Kiser, head librarian of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, is currently writing a book about this project and also seeks a publisher to bring this art to the public attention it so richly deserves. I visited the Cleveland Museum a few weeks ago where Ms. Kiser gave me an opportunity to examine Virginia Jones' original copy. I second the remarks of those early ornithologists. The lithographs are exquisitely detailed with every leaf vein, every twig, every egg marking perfectly etched. This is not a collection of illustrations; it is fine art in the tradition of Audubon.

    Despite her untimely death, Genevieve Jones achieved her goal. Now I hope that Joy Kiser will achieve hers as well. -- Gerry Rising

    A more detailed recounting of the Jones family's story is to be found in Joy Kiser, "America's Lady Audubon" Biblio 3(9), September 1998: 18-23. A number of better reproductions of the paintings are included with that article, but they still do not live up to the originals.