More than an Image

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Text by Katie Wood / Photography by John O’Hagan

A fine art collector finds beauty and inspiration in the courage and sacrifice of early explorers.

After receiving a copy of John J. Audubon’s Birds of America as a gift from his parents when he was just 10 years old, a whole new world was opened for Gilbert Johnston. “I used to lie awake at night in bed and turn the pages,” Gilbert says, recalling the moments when natural history and art first captured his heart and imagination.

Growing up, Gilbert studied history and law, earning degrees in both studies, but he says the creative side of his mind took over, and ultimately he decided to pursue a career in the arts. After law school, he traveled the wilderness of Alaska and Canada—hiking, paddling, and documenting his journey, much like the explorers who created the great scientific works of art to which he’s now dedicated his life.

“In a way I’ve experienced some of the same hardships as these early explorers and scientists,” he says. “When I read about their lives I can relate to how physically dangerous it was for them. They were so driven and so motivated that they endured all these things.”

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Gilbert’s passion for history has garnered him an even greater appreciation of Audubon and other artists from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. He explained that it’s hard for people of the 21st century to understand how often people used to be in nature. “They [traveled] in an open carriage, on horseback, or walking, so they were very aware of nature,” he says. “And because people were immersed in nature, they wanted to know what was around them.” Gilbert noted that during that time, people were willing to spend huge sums of money for bound prints of Audubon’s work and other similar artists of the time to use as a learning tool for the world around them.

Today these prints and reproductions alike are not only a learning tool but an investment, Gilbert says. “You’re buying something that’s beautiful that you must understand to appreciate. When you learn about the courageous people who dedicated their lives to doing this—risking their lives and sometimes their fortunes—you see that it’s more than just an image; it’s symbolic of the sacrifice of the person who produced it.”

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Gilbert shares his passion for natural history and art by presenting lectures and selling a wide variety of original antique artwork and reprints.

For more information, visit, or call 205-531-3973 to visit Gilbert’s gallery by appointment.