A Radical Journey of Art, Science, and Entrepreneurship: A Self-Taught Victorian Woman’s Visionary Ornithological Illustrations
The bittersweet story of a young woman and her family, who triumphed through tragedy to bring a passion project to life and change the face of science illustration.
By Maria Popova
When she was only six years old, Genevieve Jones, known to her friends as Gennie, began accompanying her father Nelson, a medical student and amateur ornithologist, on buggy rides into the wilderness, searching for birds’ nests and collecting eggs to add to their make-shift cabinet of natural history. One spring morning in the 1850s, Gennie found an intricate bird’s nest that neither her father nor Howard, her younger brother, could identify. An inquisitive mind, she set out to find a book that would solve the mystery, only to find that no one had ever written one to help people differentiate the nests and eggs of various birds. What followed was a remarkable story of art, science, and entrepreneurship, full of tragedy and triumph, as the Jones family embarked upon filling that void in natural history, told for the first time in America’s Other Audubon (public library) by former National Endowment for the Arts librarian Joy M. Kiser.
Gennie had grown up a bright, curious young woman, fascinated with science, gifted in art, and an avid reader, but awkward and shy — unusually tall at nearly 6 feet, with a skin condition that made her appear flushed at all times. Still, she fell in love with a man ten years her senior, whom Kiser describes as “an exceptional musician and literary critic, but, unfortunately…a periodical drunkard.” In 1876, just before Gennie turned thirty, her parents broke off her engagement, concerned about her suitor’s drinking. To console her broken heart, Gennie went away to stay with her best friend Eliza’s parents in Pennsylvania, where she visited the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia and saw some of the hand-colored engravings in Audubon’s now-iconic The Birds of America, noting that even Audubon had neglected to include eggs and nests as anything more than a decorative prop.
When she returned home to Circleville, Ohio, Gennie had grown unusually despondent. Her parents became increasingly concerned and, eventually, Nelson encouraged her to pursue her illustrations of nests and eggs, and collect them into a book — an idea he had previously rejected whenever Genie had brought it up, due to astronomical costs of creating a lavishly illustrated book, but was now ready to support it as a much-needed distraction from Genie’s anguish, for which he felt personally responsible.
Family and friends rushed in to support the project and Gennie set out to illustrate the 130 species of birds that nested in Ohio, many common throughout the rest of America. She and Eliza labored over the intricate illustrations, while Nelson devised a business plan to produce 100 copies of the book, to be called Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, and sell them by subscription in approximately 23 parts, charging $5 for the hand-painted version and $2 for the uncolored version. When the first twenty subscribers were secured, including some of the country’s most prominent ornithologists, production began. Kiser describes the astonishingly laborious and scientific process, reminding us of how far we’ve come with design and printing technology:
Gennie and Eliza drew illustrations in wax pencil on both sides of sixty-five-pound lithographic stones. Then Howard placed the stones into crates that were shipped eighty-nine miles to Cincinnati, where [the printing company’s] artisans fixed the drawings with a solution of nitric acid, applied ink to the surface of the stones, and printed test proofs to determine the quality of the renderings. When errors were found, the ink was cleaned off and the stones were recrated and shipped back to Circleville for corrections. The first stones made several trips back and forth before the artists conquered the challenges of keeping the points on the wax crayons sharp and the edges of the line drawings crisp.
In 1878, the first three lithographs of part one were finished and sent to ornithological publications for review, earning Gennie’s artwork praise as equal to and even better than Audubon’s. Elliott Coues, a prominent ornithology bulletin editor, wrote:
I had no idea that so sumptuous and elegant a publication was in preparation, and am pleased that what promises to be one of the great illustrated works on North American Ornithology should be prepared by women.
Once the first batch was mailed in 1879, the overwhelmingly positive response nearly doubled the number of subscribers to 39 — 34 for the hand-colored version and 5 for the uncolored — including former President Rutherford B. Hayes and a young Harvard student by the name of Theodore Roosevelt. But fate threw Genie a cruel curveball — a mere month after the first part was mailed, she contracted typhoid fever and fell violently ill. On her deathbed, she instructed her brother to keep the project alive and enlist the help of their mother in producing the illustrations. She died on Sunday, August 17, 1879, at the age of thirty-two.
In the years that followed, Gennie’s suitor, overcome with sorrow, committed suicide. Her family remained in profound grief and shock, from which their only solace was in bringing Gennie’s vision to life in its full glory. Her mother, Virginia, learned the lithographic technique and began illustrating the eggs and nests Gennie had collected. Kiser writes:
Gennie’s book became the Jones family’s transitional object, a physical entity with which they could distract themselves from their heartache and into which they could invest their passion and energy. Virginia poured all the love she could no longer give to her daughter into illustrating the nests and eggs. Virginia had never drawn or painted anything that required scientific accuracy before…. Despite her grief, she struggled with overcoming her casual artistic style and transformed herself into a scientific observer. Analysis and intellectual rigor were essential, because an artist does not draw what she sees, she draws what she understands.
Soon, Virginia was producing lithographs “every bit as lovely, exacting, and accurate as her daughter’s,” but even so, she couldn’t manage the workload and had to hire three assistants, paid between $1 and $3 for each illustration they painted. The subscription plan of $5 for a single hand-colored part — three illustrations with text — was now significantly short of breaking even. But Virginia and Howard continued to publish the book for two more years, funding it out-of-pocket, until they, too, were struck with typhoid fever. They survived, but Howard suffered heart damage and Virginia’s eyesight was permanently damaged. Still, though he had to give up his medical practice for a year, Howard continued to collect eggs and nests, and Virginia, despite her severe eye pain, continued to illustrate them.
Gennie’s memorial book was finally completed in 1886 and published as a lavish volume bound in full red morocco leather, with a remarkable, first of its kind feat of ornithological illustration inside. But the folio-sized treasure was too expensive for almost anyone to afford and, even though Gennie’s father had spent his entire retirement savings of $25,000 to finance the project, not enough copies of the book were sold to offset the production costs. Virginia became temporarily blind for nearly two years, having strained her eyes so severely to complete the work, and the family was on the brink of poverty — but they never complained:
They both felt thankful that they had the resources to see the project through and considered their collective work on the book the most significant accomplishment of their lives. Nelson never recovered from his daughter’s death. He remained a pension examiner for the United States Army, but he gave up his medical practice and spent much of his time alone in the woods.
After Nelson and Virginia passed away in the early 1900s, Howard locked the doors to the studio where Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio had been produced and they remained sealed for thirty years, until grandson Nelson III, at the age of twelve, was so overcome with curiosity that he sawed the hinges off and broke into the forbidden family temple. Though he was promptly punished, his act prompted Howard to seek a suitable home for his mother’s copy of the family’s masterpiece and it eventually made its way to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where Kiser came upon it as the museum’s librarian.
The museum’s copy of the labor of love that nearly drove the Jones family into bankruptcy was eventually appraised at $80,000. But its contribution to the study of ornithology, its feat of exquisite scientific illustration, and its testament to the power of working with true purpose remain priceless.
Smithsonian Curator of Natural-History Rare Books Leslie K. Overstreet writes in the foreword to the book, which falls somewhere between A Glorious Enterprise and Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them:
The creation of a talented young woman and her dedicated family in a small Ohio town far from the intellectual and artistic centers of mid-nineteenth century, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio was a singular and remarkable achievement. It is almost impossible for us today to imagine how ambitious the project was in its own time or how daunting the physical and technological obstacles that had to be dealt with and overcome. Even more, in our modern world of the professionalization of science*, it may seem astonishing that amateurs like the Joneses could produce something scientifically important and lasting.
(*Of course, one could also argue the exact opposite — the Jones family is an early example of today’s explosion of citizen science, from protein folding to whale songs to space exploration, its feats every bit as “scientifically important and lasting” as formal science.)
America’s Other Audubon, an appropriately lavish large-format volume full of Gennie, Virginia, and Eliza’s gorgeous illustrations, captures this extraordinary story of curiosity, creativity, and entrepreneurship with the kind of rigor and passion on par with the Joneses’ own.
Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press
Published June 27, 2012