Our fine-feathered friend: John James Audubon

The European explorers and settlers of North America invariably noticed that the sky of the New World was often dark with migratory birds, many of them unknown at home. It was not until the 19th century that the wild fowl of America found their artist and advocate in John James Audubon (1785-1851), a naturalist who combined artistry with scientific accuracy. Ironically, he first had to travel to Great Britain to find a publisher for his art. With his talent recognized in scientific and artistic circles, he found English patrons who financed the publication of his four-volume classic, The Birds of America (1827-1838), which contained 435 hand-colored plates.

Audubon’s life story could easily supply the plot for a novel or a TV mini-series. His father, Jean, was a roving adventurer, a sea captain and plantation owner in the French colony of Santo Domingo, now Haiti, where John was born. The illegitimate son of Jean Audubon and his Creole mistress, John was later raised in France by Jean’s wife. In 1803 at age 18, his father arranged his passage to the U.S. to avoid conscription during the Napoleonic wars.

Inheriting his father’s wanderlust, he roamed across much of the North American continent, founding and losing businesses and spending much time in the wilderness with his rifle and paint box. Birds especially interested him. According to some sources, Audubon conducted the first experiments with bird banding in the U.S. in order to trace their movements.

It strikes many as ironic that Audubon killed the birds he painted, but the practice raised no eyebrows during his lifetime. In the age before photography, it was understood that there was no better way to pose birds in their natural habitat. With this working method, Audubon achieved accuracy unmatched by his contemporaries.

His seminal color-plate book of ornithological art, The Birds of America, was published by subscription, allowing funds for production expenses to be raised as the publication proceeded. Audubon traveled throughout Britain and Europe and to the developing new market in America to secure patronage for his endeavor. He anticipated 14 years to complete The Birds of America. It took 11.

Producing five printed plates at a time, the hand-colored engravings were sent unbound, packaged in tin cases, to subscribers in 87 installments. Each of the 161 subscribers paid just over $1,000 for a complete set. Nearly 200 sets were finished. Known as the double-elephant folio (DEF) because of the size of each print, the hand-made paper measured 39 x 26 inches with deckled edges. Once trimmed and bound, the sheets measured 38 x 25 inches.

The expansive pages allowed for life-size illustrations, and the edition represented all known bird species found in North America. New discoveries of species found during the Wyeth Expedition to the Columbia River in 1834 were included in the edition.

Audubon worked with the artisans and engravers of Robert Havell of London to insure the quality and detail of his watercolors were accurately copied. This edition became known as the Havell edition.

After the great success of The Birds of America, Audubon created a scaled-down replica edition, one-eighth the size of the original, called the Octavo edition (1840-1844). The first edition of this work was published by Audubon and J.B. Chevalier. The seven-volume set was limited to 1,200 copies.

Although he is best known for his depictions of birds, Audubon also produced The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1842-48). In rapidly declining health, his artist sons, John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford, assisted and completed the work.

Since his death, Audubon images have been reproduced through restrikes, facsimile editions and reproductions. A posthumous edition involving the Audubon heirs was the Bien edition, begun in 1858 by the engraver Julius Bien who recreated the DEF format. The collection was never completed due to the American Civil War and the family’s financial decline. The edition consists of 150 images on 105 plates; several plates included 2 separate images in a vertical or horizontal format.

Waldemar Fries’s 1973 census counted the number of authentic Audubons in existence. Of the 119 complete sets of the first edition of Audubon’s The Birds of America, 108 belonged to institutions and 11 to private owners. Since 1973, 20 sets have been sold at auction, of which 12 sets were broken and sold to various collectors by the sheet. The complete sets or, in some instances, near-complete sets, are identified with their holders. The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco owns a complete, uncut set. An incomplete 335-plate set is in the library of Sheikh Saud in Qatar.

In June, 2004, a rare unbound but incomplete set (11 plates missing) was auctioned at Christie’s New York, establishing new record highs for individual Audubon plates from the first edition of The Birds of America. The set was known as the Queen Adelaide edition after its original subscriber. Britain’s Queen Adelaide (1792-1849) willed the unbound set to her brother, Duke Bernhard II (1800-1882), who brought the set to the queen’s ancestral German home in the Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen. The engravings were listed in the ducal inventory in 1850. Safely stored in the ducal library until the outbreak of World War II, the collection was evacuated to a cave beneath the castle. After the war’s end, the castle and duchy became the property of Communist East Germany. Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, the Audubon treasure was reclaimed by its former owners.

Whenever an Audubon set appears at auction, the results give the market a jolt. The Adelaide set followed tradition. American Flamingo, plate 431, sold for $197,900 (including buyer’s premium) at the 2004 sale. It became the most expensive Audubon print sold at auction, breaking the old record of $151,000 in a 1989 sale. The Adelaide auction saw more than a dozen individual plates sell for over $100,000.

The condition of the set attracted buyers. Unbound meant original deckled edges with the paper uncut and not sewn. Works on paper kept in storage and never exposed to light are always of higher interest.

New York’s Old Print Shop on Lexington Avenue and Chicago’s Kenyon/Oppenheimer are among several galleries in the U.S. with Audubon first editions in their inventory. Prices for The Birds of America original edition prints range from $250 for prints from the Octavo edition to $2,500-$100,000 for the DEF Havell edition.

Using the technology of his day, Audubon intended his work to be reproduced and circulated, but could never have imagined how widespread his images would become after the advent of photo reproduction. The engraved sets produced during his lifetime continue to gain value in the art market, but original watercolors, from which The Birds of America were created, are beyond the reach of collectors. They are owned by The New York Historical Society, and are available for viewing.

Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit www.LandmarksGallery.com, or call 800-352-8892.