America was an untamed country when its greatest wildlife painter came here about 190 years ago.
John James Audubon, son of a French naval officer, was born out of wedlock in 1785 in Haiti and was educated in France. When he was 18, to escape military service in the Napoleonic wars Audubon came to the United States _ to a three-story stone farmhouse called Mill Grove, which his father had bought years earlier.
What was deep countryside then is now suburban Philadelphia, but the Mill Grove house still stands, little changed from when Audubon lived here. It is shaded by stately maples, spruces and sycamores and is surrounded by a 175-acre enclave preserved from encroaching suburbia.
Since 1951 it has been a free museum, open to visitors every day but Monday.
Though he spent less than three years at Mill Grove, it was in the nearby woodlands and along the peaceful Perkiomen Creek that the young Audubon began hunting, trapping, studying and painting the wildlife so abundant in his new country.
Displayed inside the house are more than 40 original engravings from Audubon's most famous work, The Birds of America. On the top floor, where Audubon worked, mounted birds and animals _ a gray fox, bald eagles, a red-tailed hawk with wings outstretched _ stand among the period furnishings.
Outside, trails wind through orchards, fields and woods. It's still an idyllic setting, even if the traffic roar from nearby U.S. 422 competes with a Baltimore oriole's cheerful warble from the leafy treetops.
For Audubon, geography was destiny. America's unspoiled wilderness gave him the setting and subjects that made his work unique.
Though his interest in wildlife was nourished at Mill Grove, it wasn't until he was 35, after several failures in business, that Audubon began traveling the wilderness full-time to document America's bird life.
In 1826 he burst upon the art world, not in the United States but in Europe, where the American frontier was in vogue among the artists and writers of the nature-worshiping Romantic school. Audubon wasn't above playing to the fashion: In England, he dressed in furs and billed himself to fascinated British audiences as "the American woodsman."
In London, Audubon met talented engraver Robert Havell, who became his collaborator on The Birds of America, a four-volume collection of 435 hand-colored engravings with life-size images full of detail.
Printed on the oversize 29.5-by-39.5 sheets that printers nicknamed "double elephants," the collection became known as the Double Elephant Portfolio.
Bound in richly decorated leather, each volume weighing more than 50 pounds, the Double Elephant originally sold for $1,000 a set. Audubon and Havell produced 190 sets altogether, of which 100 or so are thought to be still intact.
Mill Grove owns one of them, although it exhibits only one volume at a time. The prints on the walls are from other sets that were broken up over the years so pages could be sold separately.
AT A GLANCE
Mill Grove/Audubon Sanctuary, junction of Audubon and Pawlings Roads in Audubon, Pa., west of Norristown. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Call (215) 666-5593.