PEABODY — In the world of birds, John James Audubon is an icon. At first, he killed the creatures portrayed in his famed “Birds of America,” published in 1826. But after carefully mounting the birds, studying them, then reproducing in paint what he saw and what he remembered from his years in the wild, it was as if they’d come alive again.
And they live today in the surviving Audubon prints. The prints are a unique story in themselves. The French immigrant artist used copper plates to reproduce his huge drawings. The resulting images etched on specially made paper were then painstakingly hand-painted in watercolors, one by one, the work done by “colorists” under Audubon’s direct and obsessive supervision.
Fewer than 200 sets were created and purchased by wealthy subscribers. They featured 435 individual prints, portraying 497 birds. Today, it’s estimated that only 134 collections of these fabulous works survive.
The Peabody Institute Library has one nearly complete set. A mere three prints, among a cache stolen from the library in 1981, have never been recovered.
The Audubon prints, originally gifted to the library by Eliza Sutton in 1871, have long been one of its treasured possessions. But with such gifts come responsibilities, which is why the library is hosting a $100-a-head For the Birds Gala on April 5.
As a treat for bird lovers, David Allen Sibley, author of “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” will speak at the event.
“It’s the pre-eminent book on birding,” Library Director Martha Holden said.
The gala will also include music, drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
“This is going to be a step up from the usual event,” library trustee Anne Quinn said. “The hors d’oeuvres will be more than cheese and crackers.”
All profits will be dedicated to preserving and restoring Peabody’s Audubon prints.