Come to the February 11th Great Reveal program to feel the love in the Crystal Bridges Library’s collections. The artistic temperament has long been described as passionate—and there are certainly enough romantic tales behind objects in the archives and rare book collection to support that view. Some of these items, like our autographed love poem by Washington Allston, have an obvious romantic connection.
Other pieces require more digging to uncover their softer side. For instance, what does a collection of exquisitely detailed images of bird nests have to do with a star-crossed love affair? Illustrations of the Nests and Birds of Ohio was a labor of love in more ways than one.
The book was the combined work of the Jones family of Circleville, Ohio. Production began in 1878, as a way to distract Genevieve “Gennie” Jones from her depression after her parents forbid her intended marriage. (Her parents, Nelson and Virginia Jones, were active in the local temperance movement and their daughter’s suitor was known to occasionally over-imbibe.)
Gennie was a talented illustrator and had spent her childhood exploring the local woods with her father and brother, who all shared a love for ornithology. She threw herself into the work, creating drawings that were both exquisite and scientifically accurate. The family raised money for publication by subscription and Gennie and her best friend Eliza worked together on the laborious process to prepare the lithographic stones for each plate. The first issue of three plates to subscribers received rave reviews from ornithological circles, with many comparing the work to that of Audubon. However, after only completing five of the intended sixty nine plates, Gennie was struck by typhoid fever and passed away at the age of 32. Grief stricken, her rejected suitor later committed suicide by morphine overdose. Her family mourned the loss by endeavoring to finish her work as a memorial to her life. Gennie’s mother learned lithography and her father and brother provided research on the birds. It took eight more years to finish, but the resulting book has become known as one of the masterworks of American illustration.
Only around 100 copies of this scarce, but beautiful work were produced. Crystal Bridges’ Library is fortunate to have a copy still in its originally issued subscription sections—a rare find as most owners had their completed copies bound into book form. More information on the Jones family and the work can be found in Joy Kiser’s America’s Other Audubon, available for reference in the library.
See Illustrations of the Nests and Birds of Ohio in person and hear four other stories of loves lost and won at this week’s Great Reveal. The Great Reveal is a bimonthly program highlighting works from the library’s rare books and archives collections with time for hands on viewing by the audience.
Post by Valerie Sallis Crystal Bridges Archivist and Interim Library Director