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Blog: Exploring John James Audubon's First American Home

Dappled day of nature, art and history at Mill Grove, John James Audubon Center, PA


There's nothing more essential to this Princeton Patch blogger than nature and fellowship. The two combined last weekend in a memorable afternoon at Mill Grove, John James Audubon's first American home. We alternated explorations into the artist's home and history with leisurely strolls through woods he himself had explored.

This is where Audubon became enchanted with local birds and the painting thereof.  Across the road lived the Lucy Bakewell, the girl he would successfully court and marry, who supported the artist lifelong in any number of states.  Mill Grove is the site of inspiration for John James' legendary "The Birds of America," which ultimately came to fruition in London and Edinburgh, 1826-1838. 

Across our Delaware to Pennsylvania's Schuylkill River, through stained-glass-window-hued hills, we three journeyed.  Our purpose was a form of pilgrimage, to honor our greatest artist of birds, one of our first naturalists, the inventor of bird-banding in America.

Audubon's first American dwelling sits on a forested rise above the Perkiomen Creek.  Stately pillars frame water views for which his father likely chose the bucolic site.  There is no casual/visible evidence of the lead and copper mine, for the purposes of whose management the young Frenchman was sent to our new country.  In the neighborhood, he was better known for his silks, satins and skating skills than for mine management.

This was a lad of airs and graces, who required the outdoors.  It is almost impossible for your writer to imagine John James underground even momentarily, let alone as a life mission.  Various euphemisms explain his presence here, beyond the mine.  My personal theory is that his father didn't want John James in Napoleon's army, hence emigration. 

The worlds of art and of nature, and preservation itself, were altered forever by Audubon's unfoldment here.

I journeyed with two eager and curious friends, -- one a key hiker, one an avid birder. We began by sitting upon impeccable wooden rockers on what would then have been Mill Grove's front porch, overlooking serene waterways.  Peace was the order of our day, as it must have been for Audubon.  We lifted modern binoculars, speculating about tools available to this man.  We knew too well that, --in order to begin to paint the birds he himself cherished--, he'd had to employ gunpowder. 

Refreshed from superhighway (PA TPK) challenges, we entered the sanctum.  Our welcome throughout was warm, the evocation of John James' presence effective. Particularly generous is Nancy Powell, Senior Curator of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove.

The house having passed through many owners, there are no actual pieces of furniture which JJA would have used.  Even so his presence is tactile. 

A lively film introduces life here.  A magnificent volume of one of his elephant folio, life-sized, editions of paintings of America's avian treasures awaits behind glass, like crown jewels in London's Tower.  Every month, a page is turned.  Ours for that day was of the elusive American Bittern.  Each of us had seen one or two, usually in New Jersey's Brigantine Wildlife Refuge.  Each of us was enthralled by Audubon's composition, vividness and painstaking accuracy.  Nobody surpasses this man's backgrounds, in composition and accuracy, and often drama. 

We think of Audubon as the painter of birds.  In reality, he's the artist of habitats.  His authenticity is such that he immortalized, --in my Audubon print of the Bachman's warbler among Franklinia leaves--, the very insect holes that prove this elusive shrub to be a native species.

Exhibits explain effectively the process of engraving, of painstaking hand coloring.  One display reveals monumental differences in quality between the work of his partner/engravers/watercolorists  of London, and a poor substitute of our own young realm. 

Stuffed birds help us compare JJA's interpretations with the actual specimen. It is easy to learn and almost to feel his excitement as the silver threads he wound in autumn, about  the legs of phoebes, in an on-site cave, reappeared the following season upon that migrating male and female.

Powder horns rest upon a bedspread.  Hollowed birds eggs dangle like gems along thread in an upstiars room.  No longer does the Center provide haunting crumpled (facsimile) sketches of the artist's rejected attempts at recreating Mill Grove's avian species.

Murals fill walls upstairs and down, with evocations of JJA's complex voyages throughout our land.  Completed in the 1950's, mural artists of Philadelphia -- George Harding and John Hanlen-- dared go toe-to-toe with the most effective limner of American birds.  The murals carry us on to Kentucky and New Orleans, recording the artist's transfromation from silks and satins to frontier-fringed leather, which he sported to fine publicity effect in London in the years of the engravings.

Original art also exists from his Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which John James began and his sons continued/completed, as their father's health seriously declined and then failed at 65.  I hold the private theory that Audubon's illness was caused by the chemicals he had utililzed to preserve stuffed birds for art's sake.

The Mill Grove mansion is 240 years old.  In their effective literature, it is simply referred to as "stone farmhouse and barn."  The property belonged to the Herbert J. Wetherill family until 1951, when it was transferred to new owners, Montgomery County (PA) -- [near Valley Forge.] 

It was named "The Audubon Shrine and Wildlife Sanctuary" until 2003.  Then, County and the National Audubon Society teamed to create The John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove.  It is "a Montgomery-County-owned historic site under daily management of the National Audubon Society."

The center palpably evokes JJA's presence and discoveries / accomplishments on that land. 

It also reminds us of the contribution to the world of his cherished wife, [neighbor Lucy Bakewell -- their home still stands, not open to public.].  HOrrified  by the slaughter of birds for hats and to adorn dresses in her own lifetime, Lucy founded the society we still know as Audubon. We experience some of Lucy's outrage, viewing stuffed entire birds and swoops of feathers which had required untold bird deaths.

Nature art by living artists appears in changing exhibitions. "Explorers of the Sky" by Christina Oddo will be open to view through December 30.

This is a very active Audubon Center, providing many activities for individuals and families in all seasons. The Audubon At Home Bird Habitat Recognition Program is particularly noteworthy, as is their furthering of the national Important Bird Habitat project.  Bird walks, hikes on twelve miles of trails, lectures and even birding-by-canoe adventures unfold at Mill Grove.

For us, the magnificence of John James' art, the expansiveness of his views, and the peace of our dappled walks in his woods were sufficient.  If I lived nearer, I'd be there every month.

1201 Pawlings Road, Audubon PA, 610-555-5593

All photographs courtesy of and copyrighted by The John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Audubon PA, All rights reserved...

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