Exhibition review: Alexander Wilson, Paisley Museum

Scottish-American ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Picture: complimentary
Scottish-American ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Picture: complimentary
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In 1969, the Paisley-born painter John Byrne portrayed Alexander Wilson as a white suited, panama-hatted St Francis of Assisi surrounded by stiff-necked owls and rather wooden fluffy animals.

Alexander Wilson – Paisley’s Poet, America’s Ornithologist - Paisley Museum

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The self-styled “Giotto of Ferguslie Park” wouldn’t get any prizes for his grasp of natural history or for that matter historical accuracy.

The painting, on show in Paisley Museum this summer, tells us more about Byrne than it does about Wilson, who is one of the great lost characters in Scottish history. But it’s a lovely work and however wildly speculative, it captures something of the excited dissonance that one feels on learning that Wilson, an 18th century weaver, a poet, radical activist and briefly a jailbird, was also the founding father of American ornithology.

This year, two centuries after his death, Wilson’s contribution is being marked in natural history circles around the world. Harvard University Press has just published a new biography, by eminent zoologists Edward H Burtt jnr and William E Davis jnr. But he is remembered particularly in Paisley, the hometown he left under a cloud on 23 May, 1794.

Wilson never returned to Scotland, but when he died of dysentery on 23 August, 1813, he was completing the eighth volume of his book American Ornithology and, as the first person to survey comprehensively the birds of North American wilderness, had changed the practice of natural history in many ways. The ninth and final book was completed posthumously.

A delightful exhibition in Paisley Museum brings together some surviving letters and documents with a handful of extremely rare original drawings and five volumes of the original edition of his book, which was sold by subscription.

Wilson, who in his chequered early career had also been an itinerant pedlar, knew how to do business. In 1809 he even knocked, uninvited on the door of the White House (then known as the President’s House) to show Volume 1 to Thomas Jefferson, with whom he had corresponded. He didn’t leave without ensuring that the President had signed up for a set.

The story of how a young man who only received five years of formal education became a poet, a prisoner and then a bird artist is the story of radical Scotland and American opportunity.

Born on 7 July, 1766, the son of a onetime smuggler and prosperous weaver, Wilson too became an apprentice weaver and later a packman or itinerant cloth pedlar. His indenture document, though, shows his other interests: scribbled in the corner is the first recorded example of his verse, “Be’t kent to a’ the world in rhime… For three lang years I’ve sert my time”.

His first volume of poems was published in 1790, but despite his skills as a salesman it wasn’t a financial success. His best-known poem, Watty and Meg, was a Scots version of Taming of the Shrew, published anonymously in the wake of Tam o’ Shanter.

Paisley weavers were literate and radical. Wilson’s poem The Hollander described the terrible working conditions in the grim mills and led to him being sued by a mill owner. That case never proceeded, but a later protest poem The Shark and a blackmail note to mill-owner William Sharp led to spells in the Tolbooth in 1792 and 1793.

Wilson left Scotland forever in 1794. Settling near Philadelphia, he pursued a number of trades, but it was as a schoolmaster that his mentor William Bartram, a Quaker landowner and naturalist who encourage his interest in birds, first befriended him.

If ornithology sounds a rather tame pursuit these days, then in the wilderness of 19th century North America it was anything but. Popular legend has it that Wilson was the model for the kind of scout and man of the forest who featured in James Fenimore Cooper’s stories and perhaps in part for Hawkeye himself in Last of the Mohicans. A huge musket on show in Paisley reminds us that specimens were shot and preserved and thus ornithology required more than observation skills. Wilson travelled some 12,000 miles on foot, by boat and horseback across what was often wilderness. It was risky and took its toll on his health.

But Wilson’s reputation was not just as a survivor and crack shot; his work established new standards in the observation of the habits and habitat of birds. In his early years as an immigrant, Wilson had learned about land surveying and his quantitative methods were applied to bird counts in a new way. He set up a network of observers and guides, a methodology still in use today. It’s not clear how Wilson’s drawings returned to Paisley, but there are eight original works in the collection, second only to the extensive holdings of his work at Harvard. They are revealing and not only because they give some sense of the artist’s own hand.

Their rough trimming shows the manner in which the original drawings were arranged so they might form a kind of collage, which could then be engraved as a plate. This arrangement of birds by families, together with Wilson’s extensive notes on bird behaviour, served as the earliest consistent template for what we now know as the field guide.

For even the untrained eye, though, this exhibition has delights to offer. The world of bird art has been dominated by the showmanship of the figure who all but extinguished Wilson from the record, the Frenchman John James Audubon, whose Birds of America took the later 19th century by storm. When he started out, Audubon couldn’t even afford Wilson’s book, but he set out to surpass him.

The simple clarity of Wilson’s drawings is a pleasure to behold. He had an astonishing eye for detail, from scaly feet to feather patterns, and the final prints both monochrome and hand-coloured are full of liveliness and anecdote.

This year, Wilson is moving out of his successor’s shadow. If Audubon was a grand artist in the modern mould, then Wilson, weaver, poet and Paisley agitator, turned out to be a poet and a scientist – in other words, a renaissance man.

Until 1 September.