By Joy M. Kiser
Published in 2012 and available through Princeton Architectural Press
For bird lovers, the exquisite paintings of John James Audubon’s Birds of America stand not only as beautiful art, but as valuable references of ornithology from early America. Undoubtedly, Audubon’s work has influenced countless artists and naturalists alike to produce their own memorable work or research, but perhaps none more so than the book produced by one ambitious young woman and her family.
It’s unlikely you’ve heard of Genevieve Jones’ Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds
of Ohio, published in 1886. Limited to a print run of only 100, the book
has only been known to natural history museum librarians and rare book
collectors. But for one librarian, Joy M. Kiser, the few known details of its
author and the circumstances surrounding the book’s creation were tantalizing
and demanded further research. Furthermore, it seemed to her that a book that
rivals the beauty and scientific value of Audubon’s work should be made more
accessible to the public. The result is a story within a story—America’s Other Audubon—which combines
the original panels produced by Jones and her family with Kiser’s own research
into a tragic but inspiring family story.
Upon viewing Audubon’s color plates in an exhibition at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, Jones was inspired to take his work a step further. Where Audubon focused on the beauty and characteristics of the birds themselves, Jones realized that no one had focused on the various nests and eggs of birds—information she recognized as being even more valuable in the pursuit of identification than Audubon’s work. Having collected bird nests and eggs with her father since childhood, Jones realized it’d be up to her to create that reference book, and her family and friends enthusiastically supported the endeavor. An indicator of her incredible ambition, Jones’ original plan was to illustrate the nests and eggs of all 320 known bird species in America at that time, but was talked down by her father to focus on a more reasonable goal of illustration the 130 known species of Ohio. Despite Jones’ lack of formal art training, the initial paintings were met with an enthusiastic reception, and orders for the hand painted book exceeded expectations. Good fortune wasn’t to last, though, as Jones succumbed to typhoid fever in 1879 at the age of 32, the book just barely begun. While most families would have grieved and moved on, Kiser’s research revealed a family galvanized in the effort to see Genevieve’s book completed. They grieved by continuing her work, enduring further setbacks and difficulties to finish the book seven years later.
Kiser’s success in reprinting Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio is reason enough to check out America’s Other Audubon. Whether you’re a bird lover or not, it’s hard not to appreciate nature’s beauty illustrated in the color plates. But Kiser’s research puts the Jones’ work in context, and makes the color panels that follow her account of the family’s story even more beautiful and special. Altogether, it’s a moving tribute to one woman’s love for birds, and her family’s love for her.