The Birds of America
The cover shows a Louisiana heron,
Egretta tricolor (now called tricolored heron)
|Author||John James Audubon|
|Original title||The Birds of America; from original drawings by John James Audubon|
|Illustrator||John James Audubon|
|Subject||Birds – North America; Birds – pictorial works|
|LC Class||QL674 .A9 1827|
The Birds of America is a book by naturalist and painter John James Audubon, containing illustrations of a wide variety of birds of the United States. It was first published as a series in sections between 1827 and 1838, in Edinburgh and London.
The work consists of hand-coloured, life-size prints, made from engraved plates, measuring around 39 by 26 inches (99 by 66 cm). It includes images of six now-extinct birds: Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, Labrador duck, great auk, Eskimo curlew, and pinnated grouse. The plant-life backgrounds of some 50 of the bird studies were painted by Audubon's assistant Joseph Mason and reproduced uncredited in the book.
Early publication history
About 1820, around the age of 35, Audubon declared his intention to paint every bird in North America. In his bird art, he mainly forsook oil paint, the medium of serious artists of the day, in favour of watercolours and pastel crayons (and occasionally pencil, charcoal, chalk, gouache, and pen and ink). As early as 1807, he developed a method of using wires and threads to hold dead birds in lifelike poses while he drew them.
In 1823, Audubon went to Philadelphia and New York, looking for financial support in the form of subscribers to enable him to publish his artwork, but he found support lacking. As a result, in 1826, he set sail for the United Kingdom with 250 of his original illustrations, looking for the financial support of subscribers and the technical abilities of engravers and printers. After exhibiting his drawings in Liverpool and Manchester, he journeyed to Edinburgh, where he met the accomplished engraver William H. Lizars. Lizars engraved up to ten of the first plates but was unable to continue the project when his colourists went on strike. In 1827, Audubon engaged the noted London animal engraver Robert Havell Jr., and his father, Robert Havell Sr. Havell Jr. oversaw the project through to its completion in 1838.
The original edition of Birds of America (sometimes called the Havell Edition after its printer, and sometimes called the "Double Elephant Folio", because of its size) was printed on handmade paper 39.5 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide, and is housed at Trinity College. The principal printing technique was copperplate etching, but engraving and aquatint were also used. Watercolour was then added by hand.
Audubon funded the costly printing project through a pay-as-you-go subscription. From 1826 to 1829, he travelled around the UK and to Paris, lecturing on ornithology and frontier American life in an effort to entice wealthy patrons to subscribe to the series of prints. Subscribers included the French king Charles X, the British queen Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, Lord Spencer, and, later, the Americans Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.
Prints were issued in sets of five every month or two in tin cases and each set usually included one very large bird, one medium-sized bird, and three small birds. In 1838, at the end of the thirteen-year project, 435 plates (87 sets of five) had been issued at a total cost of $870 or 175 British guineas (£183.75). The plates were published unbound and without any text to avoid having to furnish free copies to the public libraries in England. It is estimated that not more than 200 complete sets were ever compiled. An accompanying text, issued separately, was written by Audubon and the Scottish naturalist and ornithologist William MacGillivray and published in five volumes in Edinburgh between 1831 and 1839, under the title Ornithological Biography, or, An account of the habits of the birds of the United States of America. The additional cost of the five volumes of text brought the total cost of plates and text to about $1000.
After the folio edition was completed, Audubon decided to produce a more affordable edition and employed a lithographer from Philadelphia named J. T. Bowen. Bowen and his team created a smaller Royal Octavo edition, which was issued to subscribers in seven volumes and completed in 1844 after selling 1,199 sets. Five more octavo editions were completed through 1877. The octavo edition used the text of the Ornithological biography but increased the number of plates to 500, separating some birds which had originally appeared together. Some new drawings were included, mostly by John Woodhouse though Audubon and members of Bowen's team also contributed.
The Bien Edition (after chromolithography pioneer Julius Bien), was a full-sized reissue published in 1858 by Roe Lockwood in New York under the supervision of Audubon's youngest son, John Woodhouse Audubon. Due in part to the Civil War, the edition was never finished; only 15 parts of the 44 part series were completed. This edition consisted of 105 plates and included none of the original text. Fewer than 100 subscriptions were sold, making this edition rarer than other early editions.
The original edition of Birds of America is on permanent display in Trinity College's Watkinson Library, and was owned by the engraver, Robert Havell. It was donated to the College in 1900 by Gurdon Wadsworth Russell, an 1834 graduate of Trinity.
Since 1992, the Louisiana State University Libraries have hosted "Audubon Day," a semi-annual public showing of all four volumes of LSU's copy of the Birds of America. The set formerly belonged to one of the original subscribers, the Duke of Northumberland, and was purchased with a grant from the Crown Zellerbach Corporation in 1964. In recent years, the event has drawn more than 200 visitors. It was profiled in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article titled "The Joys of Slow Looking."
A full 8-volume, double-elephant folio version is on public display in the Audubon Room at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. One page is turned weekly. This, the first book purchased by the University, was bought in 1839 for $970 (equivalent to $80,000 in 2015), at the time an amazing sum. The entire volume of 425 plates is also available for viewing online at the University of Michigan's website.
The California Academy of Sciences Library owns a complete set of "Birds of America," but the books are not on public display at present.
In 2003, the University of Pittsburgh, which owns a complete collection of Birds of America that had been recently restored and preserved by the Etherington Conservation Center, mounted a major exhibition of 62 selected plates and other materials in its University Art Gallery. Following this, the university constructed an exhibit case on the ground floor of the school's Hillman Library to continuously display a rotating selection of plates to the public. Single plates are exhibited for two weeks at a time in plate number order. In 2007, the university undertook a project to digitise every plate from Birds of America, as well as Audubon's Ornithological Biography, and, for the first time, presented the complete set for public viewing in one place on the web.
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, an original subscriber to Birds of America has a daily "page turning" event at 3:15 p.m. in the Academy's Ewell Sale Stewart Library.
In 2007 the book was the subject of an exhibition by the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, which owns a copy it ordered from the original subscription, along with the table sold to house and display it. The book's subsections fit into special drawers around a fly-leaf table; the table formed the centerpiece for gatherings of the Teyler's gentleman's society of science. To commemorate the book's record-breaking sale, the museum decided to display its copy (for which the museum eventually paid 2200 guilders—a fortune at the time—during the years 1827–1838) until January 2011.
All of Audubon's and Mason's known extant watercolors preparatory for Birds of America are housed at the New-York Historical Society in New York City.
Liverpool Central Library currently has a copy of Birds of America on display in a glass case, with its pages turned weekly, as well as being displayed through an interactive kiosk, allowing readers to view the contents close-up without damaging the original copy using an Evoke Ev5 Kiosk.
One of the original books was bought by Laurance Spelman Rockefeller, who had each plate individually framed. They are all hanging throughout the public areas of the Woodstock Inn, in Woodstock, Vermont, which he built in 1969.
Paisley Museum and Art Gallery, in Paisley Scotland has the four volume elephant folio of Birds of America.
The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow, Scotland holds one volume which is on display in the library, together with an interactive version.
In March 2000 Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar purchased a copy of The Birds of America at a Christie's auction for $8.8 million, a record for any book at auction.
In December 2010, The Economist magazine estimated that, adjusted for inflation, five of the ten highest prices ever paid for printed books were paid for copies of Birds of America. Of the 120 copies known to survive, only thirteen are held in private collections. In March 2000 the Fox-Bute copy sold at Christie's (New York) for $8,802,500. In December 2005 an unbound copy, the Providence Athenaeum Set, sold, again at Christie's (New York), for $5.6 million.
On 6 December 2010, a complete copy of the first edition was sold in London at Sotheby's for £7,321,250 (approximately $11.5 million) during the sale of Magnificent Books, Manuscripts and Drawings from the Collection of Frederick, Second Lord Hesketh. The winning bid was a record auction price for a printed book and was placed by London-based art dealer Michael Tollemache, who outbid three others during the auction. According to the provenance details reported by the auction house, the copy's original owner was Henry Witham of Durham, listed as subscriber 11 in Audubon's Ornithological Biography; the first volume of the set bears a presentation inscription from Witham's wife, dated 24 June 1831. Lord Hesketh had bought the copy from a descendant of Witham at a Christie's auction on 3 July 1951, paying £7,000.
On 20 January 2012 a complete copy of the first edition was sold by heirs of the Fourth Duke of Portland at Christie's auction house in Manhattan for $7.9 million. The buyer was identified only as "an American collector who bid by phone." The sale brought to 120 the number of copies known to have survived – 107 in institution collections and 13 in private hands.
- Great horned owl
- Harlan's hawk in plate 86
- Bird of Washington, possibly a rare species or a misidentified juvenile Bald eagle
In 1830s, immediately after the publication, several plates were used as a basis for the design of a series of roller-printed furnishing fabric, produced in Lancashire, United Kingdom.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to The Birds of America.|
- Birds of America at the University of Pittsburgh — with high resolution images of all 435 double elephant folios.
- Meisei University: Birds of America — the complete sets of 435 plates of drawings, with the accompanying five volumes of textbooks.
- Teylers Museum: Digitized version of Birds of America
- The short film John James Audubon: The Birds of America (1986) is available for free download at the Internet Archive