Sunday 30 June 2024

Liverpool Central Library & Audubon's Birds of America

Liverpool Central Library


As a regular but infrequent visitor to Liverpool, I thought I was familar with most of the sights.  However I have recently come across Liverpool Central Library which is quite a gem!  It has a very modern part and a more historic part, both of which are rather amazing in their own right.  You could easily miss the Library as it is sandwiched between the Walker Art Gallery and the World Museum on William Brown Street, Liverpool.

Modern Atrium at Liverpool Central Library

The modern atrium, which opened in 2013, is light and airy and a lovely place to sit and study but there is also the Picton Room (opened 1879) if your preference is for something more traditional...

Picton Room - Liverpool Central Library - Outside

Picton Room - Liverpool Central Library - Inside

Picton Room - Liverpool Central Library - Inside

Check out the Hornby Library, opened in 1906, which housed an exhibition about Thomas Stamford Raffles and his plant and animal collections when we visited...

Hornby Library - Liverpool Central Library

However the reason I was there was to see the rare books in the Oak Room, which was built in 1914/15 to house the Library's 4000ish rare, valuable and important books.  My quest was to see John James Audubon's "Birds of America" book. This book comes in 4 volumes, is massive (a metre high!) and contains 435 hand coloured, copper plate etchings of life sized birds. 

John James Audubon's "Birds of America" Book

Each picture depicts both the male and female of the species, sometimes with their chicks or eggs, in their natural habitat and may even include their predators.  The book is so heavy it has to be supported so that the weight of the book doesn't break the spine and, if carried, needs 2 people to lift it!  Only one of the volumes is on the display which happens to be the volume that is in the best condition.  Every week, the Library's conservator, who is specially insured, turns a page to reveal a new bird.  When we were there the Willow Ptarmigan was on show...

The Willow Ptarmigan from "Birds of America"

It was possible to see some watermarks on the pages.  During the Liverpool Blitz in 1941 the Library took a direct hit and the volumes were rescued by the librarian from the strongroom, which was being flooded by water from the firemen's hoses as they tried to put out the blaze.

The book is kept in a bullet proof case with specially treated glass to prevent the watercolours from fading.  There are 4 copies of this book known in England - King Charles has one & the Bodleian in Oxford and Birmingham City Library each have one.   It is known as a double elephant folio.  "Double elephant" refers to the size of paper and was the largest paper available at the time (39.5 inches x 26.5 inches). Apparently, a complete first edition sold in 2010 at Sotheby's in London for over £7.3 million - a record auction price for a printed book!

Going back to John James Audubon - he was born in 1785, in what is now Haiti, was brought up by his stepmother in Nantes, France and was sent to the USA in 1803.  Because of the length of time it took him to complete his drwings, the birds he drew were dead, having been shot.  They were wired into lifelike poses for him to draw. In 1826, he arrived in Liverpool, cutting quite a dash in his fringed jacket and hair slicked down with bear grease.  His aim was to raise funds to print his book.  About 175 copies were sold - 100 in England and 75 in the USA, and about 120 copies still exist.

So next time you're in Liverpool, go take a look.  It's quite a story! 

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