John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) was an ornithologist of the early 19th-century responsible for creating the largest and most beautiful illustrated bird book ever. Like many of his peers he was an avid collector and a passionate hunter. He travelled widely in search of specimens and, later, in search of a publisher to engrave his work and subscribers to pay for it.
On the way he met with adventure, opposition and romance; he studied the intimate habits of wildlife, befriended Native Americans, and became a fashionable figure in polite English society.
In its size, its dramatic appeal and the life and character of its creator, The Birds of America personifies the very spirit of America at a turning point in its history.
Like his great four volume book, Audubon was one of the most colourful characters in the history of natural history.
He was born Jean-Jacques Laforest Audubon in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the Caribbean, the illegitimate son of a French merchant and a French chambermaid, Jeanne Rabin. His childhood was spent with his stepmother in France, where he developed his love of the natural world and his passion for drawing. At the age of 18 Audubon was sent to America to manage his father’s plantation, Mill Grove, in Philadelphia. He showed little aptitude for farming, preferring to spend his time studying and drawing birds. His passion for nature was matched by his love of his adopted country and he became a naturalised citizen in 1812.
After various failed business ventures Audubon increasingly devoted himself to his ‘great idea’ – an ambitious plan to publish a book of life-size reproductions of all the birds of the ‘United States and its territories’. The project brought him into contact – and conflict – with other naturalists, who saw his endeavour as an act of rivalry against the ornithological establishment led initially by Alexander Wilson and, after his death, by his biographer George Ord. The Birds of America absorbed Audubon’s attention for much of his life and its publication took nearly 12 years to complete.
In the 19th century it was the usual practice for bird illustrators to work exclusively from preserved specimens, but Audubon found this less than ideal. As a young man, he was constantly frustrated by the challenge of arranging the lifeless corpses of the birds he had shot so that they could be rendered on paper in lifelike postures. The appearance of a bird’s eyes, and the colour of its bill, legs and bare skin change rapidly after death and Audubon wanted to draw them as quickly as possible while still fresh. After much experimentation, he devised a method of rigging up the corpse on wires inserted into its body, to enable him to position it as he desired. He also used a grid placed behind the specimen to help maintain its life-size proportions.
He made use of this method throughout his life, and in later years was regularly called upon to demonstrate it before other eminent naturalists and illustrators. The inscription on his plates, ‘Drawn from Nature’, is therefore misleading to modern audiences familiar with the practice of drawing from living animals. Although Audubon always preferred to work from freshly killed birds, the enormous constraints on his time during the publication of The Birds of America meant that this was not always possible and he was increasingly forced to refer to preserved specimens collected by others.
Audubon initially sought publication in America, but the opposition of the scientific community forced him to travel to England in 1826. There he eventually formed an alliance with perhaps the only publisher and engraver who could turn his ambitious dream into reality, Robert Havell, Jr. It was originally published by the author in London in four volumes between 1827 and 1838. Given the scale of the project, it was decided to issue the book to subscribers in parts, a traditional method of raising funds for such an expensive publication.
Originally intended to contain 400 plates, the work finally extended to an engraved title page and 435 aquatint plates, issued in 87 parts between 1827 and 1838. Five volumes of accompanying text to these plates were published in Edinburgh and issued separately under the title ‘Ornithological Biography’ between 1831 and 1839. The monumental proportions of the plates were the result of Audubon’s insistence on portraying the birds life size.
The ‘double elephant folio’, as the edition became known, took its name from the double elephant paper on which it was printed, the largest size available (approx. 100cm x 67cm). To make the prints, Audubon’s original watercolour images were traced in reverse onto sheets of copper, and the lines etched into the metal using acid (the intaglio process). An aquatint was added to give a graded tonal effect. This was achieved by melting a fine resin dust onto the copper plate and exposing it again to the acid; the longer the immersion in the acid, the darker the tone. The images were then printed in black ink; watercolour was applied by hand to the finished prints by a team of colourists.
It has been estimated that 200 complete copies of The Birds of America were produced and that 120 are known to survive. When originally approached by Audubon, the British Museum was reluctant to take out a subscription, but the bequest of Major-General Thomas Hardwicke’s natural history collection in 1835 brought some 300 books to the British Museum Library. These included his original subscriber’s copy, as far as it had been published. In order to complete the book, the Museum purchased subsequent plates directly from the artist. This copy is bound in four volumes by Charles Tuckett in goatskin, tooled in blind and gold. Because of the long period over which the book was produced, many variants have been recorded. These are particularly noticeable in the numbering and captions given to plates 1 to 100 when Audubon’s ‘great idea’ was in its infancy.
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