By Alan Burke
---- — 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.
On April 6, the library will follow the upscale gala by exhibiting some prints, for free, to the public.
Quinn remembers viewing the prints as a girl. The “Birds of America” volumes were left in the Sutton Room — an elaborately wood-paneled space also donated by Sutton — for anyone to peruse. The room was darkened in those days, lending a mysterious quality to both the birds and the room.
“They were treated kind of casually,” Quinn said. “They were just lying there on a table.”
That lack of care explains the theft in 1981, as well as the wear and tear that more than century of page turners put on the work.
After the theft, the prints were lodged temporarily at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem for safekeeping. But when subtle suggestions came that the museum was the better and safer place to keep them, the city swung into action.
Peabody resolved to contribute a share to the restoration of a number of prints each year. The Sutton Room was equipped with climate controls, and librarians set up a system of displaying a few prints, in glass frames, on a revolving basis.
The theft reminded the city how valuable the prints are and how much they mean to Peabody, Quinn said.
The restoration has been ongoing for more than decade at Studio TKM, which will have a representative at the gala.
“The first step of their process,” Quinn said, “is they give the print a bath. Amazing! But they know what they’re doing.”
Over time, 180 of the 432 prints have been repaired, including the most severely damaged.
“We’re making pretty good progress,” Holden said. “... It might take another 15 years to finish, but we’ll get it done.”
Unfortunately, with finances increasingly pinched, the city can no longer afford to sponsor the work — “and the money has to come from somewhere,” Holden said.
Which explains the April gala, an effort to keep the work going by reaching out to bird lovers, art lovers and Peabody lovers.
Holden hopes to attract 150 guests.
Sponsors for the event so far include the Law Office of James J. Burke, Energi Inc., Friends of the Peabody Institute Libraries, Holden Oil, Lahey Clinic, People’s United Bank and Salem Five.
For more information, contact Holden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 978-531-0100, ext. 16.