Two hundred years ago (approximately) …

Friday 24th February 2023

The continuing adventures of an American in York

John James Audubon arrived in York on Sunday April 22nd 1827.  The following morning started inauspiciously.  After snow, rain, and mist, Audubon set out to deliver his letters of introduction to various local gentlemen, all of whom were not in (or so Audubon was told).  The Rev. Turner called.  Turner was a Unitarian minister, alumnus of Charles Wellbeloved’s (York) Manchester College and (of course!) a member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.  He was accompanied by John Phillips, keeper of the Museum (then still in cramped rooms over a bank in Low Ousegate).  Phillips viewed Audubon’s drawings, but seems to have made no comment. Audubon spent the rest of the day exploring York in the rain, admiring the Minster and throwing pebbles over “a pretty little stream called the Ouse”.

Next day he called on John Phillips, presumably at the Society’s rooms in Low Ousegate: who assured him that the Society was too poor to purchase his work. He then spent the evening at the Rev. Turner’s in company with four other gentlemen, who insisted on discussing politics and emancipation, rather than birds and subscriptions. (Several members of the Society were actively engaged in the anti-slavery movement.) April 26th brought a walk in the country, and a few birds – one or two warblers, a thrush, and some rooks – compared unfavourably with what would be offered by Ohio or Louisiana – but “To-day I have had a great number of visitors, and three subscribers”.  Things were looking up.

April 27.  “A long walk early, and then many visitors, Mr Vernon among them, who subscribed for my work … I am quite worn out; I think sometimes my poor arms will give up their functions before I secure five hundred subscribers”.  Mr Vernon, of course was William Venables Vernon, later William Vernon Harcourt, mainspring of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.  Was his subscription the one that led to Birds of America arriving in the Library of the YPS?

April 28. After an attempt to capture an interesting butterfly by wielding his swordstick cane, “as I whirled it round, off went the scabbard into the river … and I stood with a naked small sword as if waiting for a duel”, Audubon climbed the Minster tower with a spy-glass; “determined to push off tomorrow”; “paid an enormous bill to my landlady”; and reflected on the fact that York had yielded only five subscribers.

Next morning, Audubon duly pushed off to Leeds: after breakfasting at 5 o’clock and a refreshing walk along the Ouse, he caught the six o’clock coach.  At Leeds – “much superior to anything I have seen since Edinburgh” – he had an enjoyable time mixing with members of the Leeds Lit & Phil, and met a kindred spirit “a good ornithologist, –  not a closet naturalist, but a real true-blue, who goes out at night and watches Owls and Night-jars”: probably John Backhouse, a gentleman not unknown to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.

Nevertheless, much superior Leeds produced only five more subscribers: “poor indeed compared with the little town of York”.  It may have been some compensation that while in London a few months later, Audubon received from Backhouse the present of two live Meadow Larks and some specially-concocted bird food: “I saw them with a pleasure bordering on frenzy”.

York and Leeds proving unrewarding with respect to subscription, Audubon moved on to Manchester …

Peter Hogarth

Image: American Flamingo by John J Audubon