When John James Audubon (1785 - 1851), putative American woodsman, son of a French plantation owner and his housemaid, turned up in Edinburgh in 1826 with hair greased with bear oil and a series of vivid, dramatic bird paintings of American species alien to British shores, very few predicted that the result would become one of the most feted illustrated books of natural history.

Yet captivating a British society enamoured of new worlds, and the New World in particular, Audubon’s lavishly illustrated series of imaginative ornithological mise-en-scene, from a flurry of mockingbirds attacking a rattlesnake in a tree to two peregrines feasting on a brace of duck, became hugely popular, and the extant 120 copies of The Birds of America are amongst some of the rarest books in the world.

At a time when readers were used to stiffly-posed natural history specimens – sometimes looking as lifeless as the taxidermy specimens they were based on – staring starkly out of the page, Audubon’s dramatic brilliance was thrilling.

The enthusiastic reaction of the first engraver of the works, William Home Lizar, when he saw the peregrines on the easel at Audubon’s Edinburgh lodgings, “with bloody rags at their beaks’ ends and cruel delight in their daring eyes,” was representative. “I will publish this!”

This, then, is the starting point for the touring exhibition from the National Museum of Scotland, a visually striking contextualisation of the hunger for knowledge that marked this particular point in history, painting a picture of a man whose myth was as vivid as his paintings.

The heart of it is Audubon’s superb prints themselves – 46 large scale unbound prints taken from the museum’s larger collection, many of which have never been shown before.

There’s a rare bound copy of The Birds of America itself, open on the page of a glorious snowy egret, on loan from the Mitchell Library, and taxidermy specimens from the museum’s collections. A series of small bird skins laid out as specimens to study shows the dichotomy of the methods of 19th century naturalists.

There is the Ornithological Biography, a smaller scaled 3000-page companion piece to Birds of America, with text written in conjunction with Audubon’s Scottish friend William McGillivray.

This is a hugely engaging exhibition, for bird lovers or otherwise, with well-told stories in the wall panels, filled with anecdotes from Audubon and contemporaries. The exhibition addresses some of the more problematic aspects of Audubon’s life, not least his attitude to slaves in a period when the abolitionist movement was taking hold, perhaps complicated by the fact that he was (in origin) the illegitimate son of a plantation owner and relied at many points during his life on the patronage of slave owners.

Audubon had been fascinated with birds and drawing since he was a child, gradually honing his art and his observations of the ornithological world despite a series of failed business ventures after his father had sent him to America to avoid military conscription into Napoleon’s army.

Audubon’s appeal was his enthusiasm and his unique popularising vision, spending months in the “backwoods”, engaging Native American guides, whom he respected for their knowledge, and African American slaves, whom he didn’t, working in an entirely different manner to many of his conservative predecessors and contemporaries,.

Audubon largely shot his specimens himself after close observation of their habits in the wild. Then using wire, he arranged them in an ingenious manner into naturalistic, occasionally outlandish poses, frequently, if the size of bird allowed it on the page, using numerous smaller birds in imaginative poses to show different aspects of the wings or body for identification purposes.

Elsewhere, larger birds, still life size, had to be crammed on to the 90cm tall pages in somewhat awkward yet inventive poses, showing a fine design eye that made the ornithological eye somewhat more subservient.

For Audubon, too, it was about the myth-making, whether in the questionable attempts to pass off new birds – such as the infamous Bird of Washington, which wowed the British yet of which no specimen exists – or in his entertaining anecdotes and bird-watching memoirs, frequently embellished, but not entirely improbable.

And yet his work brought to wider knowledge a number of species – more than 20 – which had previously been unknown to science. Others were misidentifications, sometimes wilful or simply made up, so his peers believed, at others, the natural and unavoidable pitfalls that come from identifying birds, with their wildly varying plumage at different times of year or life, in the wild, coupled with a certain arrogance and belief in his own myth.

“No man living has studied [birds] as much as I have done!”, he claimed, smarting at the rejection of the “establishment” in his early career. Other naturalists bristled, but kings and the captivated continued to subscribe to his work – and on the walls here, you can very much see why.

Audubon’s Birds of America, National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, 0300 123 6789 www.nms.ac.uk Until 8 May, Daily 10am–5pm, Adult £10; Under 16 and Museum members, Free – concessions available.

Critic's Choice

An exhibition predicated on Dusk is Andrew Mackenzie's second solo showing at Edinburgh's &gallery. Filled with the darkness of trees, this is silhouette and frame, the gloom of dimly-viewed landscape, the stark contrast of fluoro-bright framing within the frame, as familiar from his earlier work. There are trees here familiar from any woodland walk, the ash, Scots pine, elder and birch all in their distinctive, stark winter outline- reservoirs too, and the subtle changes of the darkening light.

“Dusk is the darker stage of twilight,” says Mackenzie, who says that he often has a rough idea of what he's going to paint, inspired by his local woodland surroundings in the Borders, but that the piece evolves as he goes along. “The sense of dusk emerged from the paintings as I made them.”

“Dusk is my favourite time of the day, partly because it is a transitional time, a threshold between day and night. I don’t associate it with melancholy, but instead love the way colours deepen; shapes and forms simplify as the light is limited. I like the way your eyes adjust to the light as it fades.” He associates it, too, with childhood, and his adult experience of walking in the woods when his then small children were in bed. “Being out at that time of day, and experiencing the world get dark, is an important part of growing up.” His paintings, he says, involve closer looking, both his own, and – hopefully – the viewers, an investigation of the state of being that is the “inbetween”.

Andrew Mackenzie: Dusk, &gallery, 3 Dundas Street, Edinburgh, 0131 467 0618, www.andgallery.co.uk Until 2 Mar, Tues – Fri, 10am – 5pm; Sat 10am – 4pm and by appointment

Don't Miss

Vibrant, diaphanous, painted yet sculpted, constructed, scrunched and assembled, the paintings draped around the walls of the Modern Institute this week are the work of the American painter, Suzanne Jackson, here showing in her first solo exhibition at the gallery. “In Nature's Way” is a play on words, as well as texture and form, as she writes it in her introduction to the show, “On my mind all year, in this work for Glasgow. We should live our lives – in Nature's way. Currently, we are – in Nature's way.”

Suzanne Jackson: In Nature's Way... The Modern Institute, 14-20 Osborne Street, Glasgow, 0141 248 3711 www.themoderninstitute.comGlasgow, Until 5 Mar, Mon - Fri, 10am - 6pm; Sat, 12 noon - 5pm