Audubon's Legacy: Where It All Began
On a farm in rural Pennsylvania, John James Audubon first glimpsed the curious birds of the New World that would become his lifelong passion. Now the Audubon Center at Mill Grove shares his home and his artistry with the conservation movement he continues to inspire.
Perhaps the largest and most dramatic of the center's paintings, "The Eagle and the Lamb," has had a precarious existence. Audubon failed to sell it in England and brought it back with him to the United States. After his death, Lucy gave it to George Bird Grinnell, a former student of hers and the founder of the first Audubon society. National Audubon sold the painting at auction in 1953 to Sarah Moyer, a member of the Norristown (Pennsylvania) Audubon Club. Immediately the painting was put on loan to hang at Mill Grove. In 1985, to commemorate the 200th birthday of John James, the members of the Norristown club gave it to Mill Grove permanently.
A visitor to the Audubon Center at Mill Grove will now see on exhibit one volume of Audubon's Birds and one of hisQuadrupeds, while the other volumes remain in Philadelphia, where they're being restored. Also at Mill Grove are six prints, recently purchased from an auction house, and seven portraits, which the staff calls "Audubon's dinosaur species"--portraits of birds he saw that are now extinct, including the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Eskimo curlew. A new exhibit represents Audubon's bedroom, arranged with period furniture and festooned with bird skins, reproductions of unfinished drawings, and other bric-a-brac.
The center's staff grapples with providing much-needed renovations--just a day after The Birds of America was removed from the house, a leak dripped water on the box it had been stored in--and one plan envisions the enormous three-storied barn eventually becoming part of a climate-controlled art gallery.
Strengthening ties to the prosperous suburban community is also a priority as the Audubon Center at Mill Grove continues to grow. Director Bochnowski predicts visitation will more than double, from 20,000 people annually to upwards of 50,000. Planning Mill Grove's future is the responsibility of the site's stewardship board and Pennsylvania Audubon's board of directors, assisted by museum professionals, community leaders, and members of the nearby Valley Forge Audubon Society, which already holds chapter board meetings at the center. "The new connection at Mill Grove gives the entire Audubon movement a presence in this region," says chapter president Ralf Graves.
Unquenchable wanderlust characterized John James Audubon's life. No single place could hold him, yet at Mill Grove his memory continues to inspire those who share his curiosity and passion for nature. Here we may still catch glimpses of the artist whose genius flowered among its durable buildings and in its bird-haunted woodlands.
For information on the Audubon Center at Mill Grove, call 610-666-5593.
This story originally ran as "Where It All Began" in the November-December 2004 issue.