Hands Behind the Masterpiece: Audubon’s “Birds of America”

Lush and beautiful.  Dynamic.  Faintly fragrant with the mystery and romance of the man who created it.  This is the enormous double elephant folio, Birds of America, by artist, naturalist, and outdoorsman John James Audubon (1785 – 1851).

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“Blue Grosbeak,” Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Beinecke Library / Curious Sengi.

In order to realize his ambition to publish illustrations of every living bird species in America, Audubon was forced to leave the depths of a frontier wilderness and the nascent cities of a new republic.  In Britain, Audubon had a chance to find wealthy subscribers to fund and talented printers to produce his masterwork.  Birds of America was ultimately entrusted to the London engraver Robert Havell, Jr. (1793 – 1878).  The project encompassed the production of 435 hand-colored plates with text and accompanying figures, printed in four volumes in double elephant folio size:  26 ½ by 39 ½ inches.  This endeavor would take a team of fifty men over fourteen years to produce.

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Color plates were generated in a multi-step process that involved engraving a copy of Audubon’s original watercolor image onto a copper plate, printing, and hand-coloring.   Work on the 400+ plates began in 1827 with the illustration of a Wild Turkey and was finished in 1838.  Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

Of the 180 original copies of the double elephant folio, about 110 still survive today and are sought out as great treasures.  In 2010, Sotheby’s in London broke the record for any printed work when a copy was auctioned to a bird-loving art dealer for £7.3 million ($11.5 million).  In contrast, a Shakespeare 1623 First Folio sold for a paltry £1.5 million at the same auction.

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The Hooping Crane [sic]. Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Beinecke Library / Curious Sengi.

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Havell’s engraving were based upon watercolors like this one that Audubon provided.  The lively gestures and life-like poses characteristic of Audubon’s work is attributed to his method of using freshly shot birds supported by wire armatures.  Image credit:  New York Historical Society.

As cherished and celebrated as the folio volumes are, the original copper engraved plates have met with an extraordinary history of their own.  After Birds of America was printed in London, the plates were shipped to New York and stored in a warehouse which burned down in 1845, damaging a good number of them.  After that episode, the plates were stored in a special fire-proof storage vault Audubon had constructed on his property.  By 1869, Audubon’s impoverished widow, Lucy, was forced to sell the plates as mere scrap metal to Ansonia Brass & Copper Company in Connecticut.

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Copper plate engravings, such as this one of American Scoter Ducks, were made by Robert Havell, Jr. of London.  He and his father were both printer/artists who specialized in natural history images.  Havell would later leave London and move to upstate New York, where he is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Not all the copper plates were melted down, however.  Charles Cowles recounts the extraordinary story:

At that time I was about fourteen years old.  I was beginning the study of taxidermy and was naturally deeply interested in birds.  I happened to be at the refinery watching the process of loading one of the furnaces, and noticed on one of the sheets of copper that a man was throwing into the furnace, what appeared to me to be a picture of a bird’s foot.  I took the plate from him, cleaned it with acid, and thereupon discovered the engraving [of the Black Vulture]. . . . I appealed to the superintendent, but without avail.  I next brought the matter to. . . . my father, from whom I received no encouragement. . . . I appealed to my mother and interested her to such an extent that she drove to the factory and looked at one of the plates.  She of course recognized that they were Audubon plates; and instructions were given by my father to keep them intact.  (Quoted from Deane 1908.)

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Could this be the very same Black Vulture plate snatched from the furnace by an astute teenage boy? One shudders at the thought of what could have been lost.  Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

The surviving plates were then distributed to various museums, universities, and individuals.  The clever young Cowles talks of two plates that “. . . particularly struck my fancy, so much so that when the plates were first discovered I managed to secure them on the quiet, cleaned them myself and hid then; and when the plates were distributed no one knew of the existence of these two and they later became my property (quoted from Deane 1908).”

Approximately 80 plates survive today.  In 1985, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Birds of America, a handful of plates in the care of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City were taken back to London for restoration and a special limited edition of reprints, which were quickly snapped up by wealthy enthusiasts.  But this masterpiece has not been completely sequestered by private collectors.  A number of copies of the double elephant folio are on public display at various universities and museums.

Read, view, and download high-resolution images from Birds of America via the Audubon Society webpage.

Images from this post were taken at the “Audubon and the Double Elephant Folio” exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum.

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The double elephant folio is huge!  These dimensions were adopted according to Audubon’s plan to have each bird depicted at life size.  Image credit:  Yale Peabody Museum / Beinecke Library / Curious Sengi.

 

References

Deane, Ruthven.  1908.  “The Copper-Plates of the Folio Edition of Audubon’s ‘Birds of America,’ with a Brief Sketch of the Engravers.”  The Auk 25 (4):  401 – 413.

Hart-Davis, Duff.  2005.  Audubon’s Elephant:  America’s Greatest Naturalist and the Making of the “Birds of America.”  New York:  Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Reyburn, Scott.  7 December 2010.  “‘Birds of America’ Book Fetches Record $11.5 Million.”  Bloomberg.  Accessed 1 May 2016.

Thomas, Michael.  2006.  “The extraordinary tale of an eight point eight million dollar book.”  In Consuming Books:  The Marketing and Consumption of Literature.  S. Brown, ed.  London:  Routledge.  Pp. 32 – 45.

 

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