Minniesland.com acquires rare Audubon copper plate

Minniesland.com now owns one of only a small number of surviving Havell Edition copper plates — the actual metal plates that were used to print the bird images for the Havell Edition of The Birds of America. I recently  acquired the plate for one of the later small images, PL 415 Brown Creeper – Californian Nuthatch, which was the fifth and final print of Audubon’s 83rd number. (The Birds of America consists of 435 plates, originally issued in 87 numbers, each number including five prints.)

This is the original copper plate etched by Robert Havell for PL 415 Brown Creeper – California Nuthatch of Audubon’s Birds of America. It is darkened by oxidation.

The Audubon Family and the Copper Plates

Following completion of the Double Elephant Folio in 1838, Audubon arranged for the copper plates to be transported via ship from England to New York, insuring them for $5000. In 1842, the Audubons stored the “coppers” in a warehouse owned by James Hall, a friend of the Audubons and brother of Caroline Hall, who was the second wife of Audubon’s younger son John Woodhouse Audubon. In 1845, the warehouse (with the plates still in it) was destroyed by fire; luckily most, although not all, the plates were judged recoverable after the fire.

There seems to have been some discussion within the family about reissuing the Double Elephant Folio, but Audubon was busy with other projects and eventually succumbed to a variety of physical ailments, passing away in early 1851 at Minniesland, the family’s home. Audubon’s two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse Audubon, who had been his business and artistic partners since the 1830s, continued to reissue Audubon’s publications and pursued their own business ventures in hopes of supporting their mother and their own large families. In the early 1850s, each son built a home near the main house on the family’s land; they also built a small outbuilding (which they referred to as “the cave”) to store the copper plates.

John Woodhouse Audubon and Victor Gifford Audubon

On the left, a self-portrait by John Woodhouse Audubon from the collection of the National Academy of Design. John was an associate member of the Academy. Right is Victor Gifford Audubon’s portrait by Daniel Huntington, also in the collection of the National Academy of Design. Victor was elected to the Academy as a full member after serving as an associate member.

 

As the 1850s advanced, and with Victor’s health in serious decline, John decided to undertake the reissue of the Double Elephant Folio using the new technique of chromolithography.  He enlisted Julius Bien, a young New York printer who had immigrated from Germany to the United States in 1840. The project commenced in 1858, but John was forced to discontinue publication in 1860 due to mounting financial difficulties, made worse by the Civil War and its impact on his mostly Southern subscribers. During the period of 1858 to 1860, many of the copper plates were used by Bien to transfer the etched images onto lithographic stones for the “reissue” of the Double Elephant Folio (that is, the Bien Edition). In all, 105 different images were completed for the Bien Edition before the project was discontinued.

In 1860, Victor, age 51, succumbed to his various ailments. This could not have been a surprise to his family given many years of pain and poor health, lack of mobility, self-medication with drugs and alcohol, and a deteriorated mental state. John, on the other hand, continued to soldier on, trying to provide sufficient funds for his mother, his own and Victor’s families, but in early 1862, John suddenly became ill and died at the age of 49.

Sale of the Copper Plates

Following the death of her sons, Lucy Audubon found herself in a grave financial situation because of the debts run up for the Bien Edition. For years, Lucy struggled to raise money using anything she perceived to have value because of its relationship to her husband’s work. Among items mentioned in Lucy’s  correspondence were Audubon’s original paintings, the copper plates, and the inventory of unused folio prints (generally uncolored, given the family’s practice of delaying coloring costs until a print was needed).

While the paintings were eventually sold as a collection to the New-York Historical Society in 1863, and the plain prints were often given by Lucy as gifts to friends and to people who provided her favors or services, she found little interest in preserving the surviving copper plates.

In his classic book The Double Elephant Folio (Chicago: American Library Association, 1973, pp. 390-398), Waldemar Fries discusses what happened to the copper plates. Fries reports that Lucy pursued a scheme to place the copper plates in one of the National libraries at Washington in 1863, but nothing came of it. As late as July 1870, Fries relates an advertisement appearing in American Literary Gazette and Publishers’ Circular that read, “Audubon’s Birds of America. On behalf of the widow of the great Ornithologist, Messrs. Putnam & Sons offer for sale the whole of the large copper plates of this magnificent work. There are altogether 350, and they are to be sold to the highest bidder before the first of September next.” (Quoted in Fries, p. 392.)

This suggests the loss or deterioration beyond restoration of around 85 of the original plates. The next mention of the plates that Fries reports is an article in the New York Times from March 1, 1871. The article begins,“There is something almost sad in the statement that the original plates for that magnificent work, AUDUBON’S “Birds of America,” were recently sold in this City for their value as old copper, after having vainly sought a purchaser upon their artistic merits. But the new owners, who are well known merchants, have agreed to wait a reasonable time for any proposition to redeem the plates from the destruction which otherwise awaits them.” (Quoted Fries, p. 392.) The Times article concludes, “The plates, after various strange adventures…have…sunk to that lowest level of human appreciation, the scrap-heap, and, unless some unlikely phase of public spirit developes [sic] itself, will soon be remanded into copper kettles or worse. Thus is true art admired and encouraged.” (New York Times, “The Audubon Plates Sold for Old Copper,” March 1, 1871, p. 4)

Fries documents a few additional mentions of plates in the 19th century, some referring to the “useable” plates, some (he believed) referring to those that were in poorer condition, and were perhaps from the group of 85. Fries also cites a 1908 article in ornithological journal The Auk by Audubon scholar and biographer Ruthven Deane on the copper plates. Although factual certainty is impossible due to conflicting recollections, multiple sources suggest that a large number of the plates came into the possession of Phelps, Dodge and Company circa the early 1870s.

Phelps, Dodge was an import-export business formed by Anson Green Phelps and his son-in-law, William Earl Dodge, in 1833. Dodge became president of the company after Phelps’s death in 1858. Dodge’s eldest son, William Earl Dodge, Jr., joined the firm, and was named a partner in 1864. The younger William Dodge and a cousin eventually transformed Phelps, Dodge from an import business into a mining company. In time, Dodge Jr. sat on the board of directors of a number of mining, railroad, real estate, water, and other companies, and Phelps, Dodge became one of the largest mining companies in the world.

According to Deane’s article, William Dodge Jr’s daughter, Grace H. Dodge, wrote to Deane in 1908 and related that the plates were stored, circa 1865, in the New York warehouse of  Phelps, Dodge and that her father had them sorted, and presented those in the best condition to several colleges, museums, friends and family members.

There is another account related by Deane that has the majority of plates being shipped to a Dodge concern in Ansonia CT. According to a letter written in 1907, Charles A. Cowles (a son of the Ansonia operation’s general manager) happened to be visiting the plant in 1873 when he was 14, and observed the destruction of some of the copper plates as they were being melted for the production of copper bars. Realizing that they depicted birds, and sure of their significance, young Cowles made several attempts to intervene, and eventually gained a reprieve for some number of plates that were put into storage. According to Cowles, when the issue of the plates’ disposition arose again a year later, he convinced his mother to intervene with his father, who determined finally to show the plates to Mr. Dodge. Dodge (as per his daughter’s account) kept some for himself, his family and friends, and distributed some to institutions. Apparently, the Cowles family also managed to retain some plates. Sadly, the best evidence suggests that the great majority of the plates were reclaimed for other purposes.

Fries’s Census of the Plates

In his 1908 article, Deane was able to account for a total of 37 copper plates. Over the years, however, he and others added several more plates to the total. In a 1934 article in The Auk, Phoebe Knappen took up the challenge by updating and expanding Deane’s list to the best of her abilities. Knappen, who worked for the US Biological Survey (one of two predecessor agencies eventually combined into the US Fish and Wildlife Service), followed up her article with brief “addition and corrections” in 1938. By 1938, she had established the current location of 52 plates, of which 32 were in institutions and 20 were held privately; she believed there were at least an additional 7 or 8 copper plates in existence, the current whereabouts she could not pin down.

Working in the 1950s and 1960s, and using Deane’s and Knappen’s work as his initial jumping-off point, Fries expanded and updated the list of extant plates to 78, including 75 he could locate and three he could not. Of the 75 with known whereabouts, 52 were in institutions and 23 were in private hands (including several estates). One of the plates in private hands was PL 415. Knappen’s 1934 article had specifically addressed this plate, indicating that it belonged to Mrs. Allen B. Talcott, but was on loan to the Wadsworth Atheneum and Morgan Memorial. Fries listed the owner of PL 415 simply as a Mrs. Kirk Fourcher of Ridgefield CT with no further information. (Fries, page 397.)

Looking through Fries’s list, I could myself recollect one copper plate that is now in an institutional collection (PL 337 American Bittern) that is not on his list. I could also identify several plates that Fries lists as being privately owned that are now in institutions. Unfortunately, Fries’s census, conducted over 50 years ago, is the last major accounting of the copper plates, but it is safe to say that they are very rare, with less than one-fifth the original number of plates surviving, and of the surviving plates, the great majority are institutionally owned.

Identifying Mrs. Fourcher

In this age of instant access to information, it is truly amazing the biographical and genealogical information one can uncover with just a name and city. The 2017 auction catalog that listed the copper plate for PL 415 stated that the consignor was the same person listed as the owner in Fries’s book.  Kirk Fourcher had passed away in 1968, and his widow had remarried in 1969. Her name was Priscilla Talcott Spahn. That name occurred elsewhere in the auction catalog, which featured a large trove of poet Thomas Stearns Eliot photos, books, and ephemera. It turns out that Mrs. Spahn (née Priscilla Stearns Talcott), was T. S. Eliot’s great-niece, and is the last living Eliot relative to have known him and had a personal relationship with him.

The copper plate came down to Mrs. Spahn through her paternal grandmother, Katherine Agnew Talcott (or Mrs. Allen B. Talcott, as was her married name). Mrs. Spahn, with whom I exchanged several emails, knew of numerous connections between Katherine Agnew Talcott’s parents and the Dodge family that came to own the copper plates through the firm of Phelps, Dodge and Company.

I am not at all sure how my grandmother obtained her copper plate. It is possible that she received the plate when her mother, Mary Nash Agnew’s estate was settled….Grace Dodge and my great-grandmother, Mary Nash Agnew were elected to the NY Board of Education in the same period. [Grace Dodge was the first woman elected to the NY Board of Education while Mary Nash Agnew was the second.] …Grace was the daughter of W.E. Dodge Jr. … William Dodge Jr. and my great grandfather Cornelius Rea Agnew travelled in the same circles. They were both involved in the Union League Club, and were both members of various commissions during the Civil War. Mary and Cornelius were the parents of my grandmother, Katherine Agnew Talcott. 

The copper plate was offered with a copy of the Audubon Havell print, which Mrs. Spahn also inherited from Katherine Agnew Talcott. According to one of Mrs. Spahn’s emails, “My grandmother, once she had the plate, spent a great deal of time searching for the matching print.” Indeed, in the first half of the 20th century, it would have been somewhat difficult to find specific Audubon plates for sale since dismantling of folios was not a common occurrence. Mrs. Spahn did not clarify when or how her grandmother came by the print, but Fries reports the breaking up of about two dozen folios before 1950 that would have enabled the sales of individual prints. Among the merchants that sold individual Havell prints in the first half of the 20th century were Abercrombie & Fitch, R. H. Macy and Co., the Old Print Shop, Weyhe Gallery, Kennedy & Co. (all of New York), Goodspeed’s Bookshop (Boston), Charles Sessler, Inc (Philadelphia), and Hamill & Barker (Chicago). (Fries, pp. 181-184.)

Katherine Agnew Talcott and the Copper Plate

The connection between the Dodge and Agnew families and the plate is clarified by a paragraph in the 1934 Knappen article which specifically mentions PL 415 as follows, “Number CCCXV [sic] engraved with two figures each, of the Brown Creeper, Certhia familiaris, and the Californian Nuthatch, Sitta pygmea, has been loaned to the Wadsworth Atheneum and Morgan Memorial by Mrs. Allen B. Talcott [Katherine Agnew Talcott] of New York. This is said to have been ‘found by W. E. Dodge about 1860 with six others and given by Mr. Dodge to Dr. C. R. Agnew [Dr. Cornelius Rea Agnew] of New York.'”

This supports Mrs. Spahn’s belief that her grandmother Katherine Agnew Talcott received the copper plate through her parents, most likely through Mrs. Spahn’s great-grandfather’s connection to William E. Dodge, Jr. Unfortunately, we do not know when the gift would have occurred, but it seems likely that the Agnews acquired the plate some time in the 1870s or early 1880s. Dr. Agnew passed away in 1888 while Mrs. Agnew passed away in 1918. The Agnews married in 1856 and had quite a few children, Katherine herself having been born in 1870.

It is of course possible that Katherine acquired the plate before her mother’s, or perhaps even before her father’s, death. She was interested in art, and in 1905 would marry the promising and gifted Connecticut artist Allen Butler Talcott. Talcott was an American landscape artist who achieved critical acclaim and was well on his way to an important artistic career. A son, named Agnew Allen,  was born to the Talcotts in February 1908. Sadly, Allen Talcott died just a few months after the birth of his son at the young age of 41.

Agnew would himself grow up to marry Charlotte Stearns Smith (a niece of T. S. Eliot’s) in 1931. Their only child, Priscilla, was born in New York on Feb 19, 1934. Mrs. Spahn writes, “As I was [my father’s] sole dependent – he and my mother divorced when I was 6 , and he had full custody – my father was eligible for the draft. He, Agnew Talcott, managed to get a commission in the Army rather than serve as an enlisted man. So, for the duration of WWII, my grandmother cared for me, and I was very attached to her. That relationship continued until her death [in 1956].  It was she who paid for my last year of college after my father died [in 1955]. … I obtained the plate and print from my grandmother on her death. It always hung in her house.”

The house in question (55 North Cove Rd, Old Saybrook, CT, also known as the Robert Bull House) was built around 1700, and is now a part of the historic district of Old Saybrook. It was purchased by Mrs. Talcott in Sept 1933, less than six months before her granddaughter was born. At that time, the copper plate was apparently on loan to the Wadsworth Atheneum and Morgan Memorial (as per Knappen’s 1934 article in the Auk) and may have remained so for several years. According to a local historian of Old Saybrook, Mrs. Talcott was “an artist’s wife who recognized [the house’s] possibilities” and “proceeded at once to make the house and grounds into a charming picture to meet you at the turn of the road.” (Mary R. Rankin Spencer, quoted in “First Report of Historic District Study Committee of Old Saybrook CT,” February 20, 1970).

A recent photo of Katherine Agnew Talcott’s home, where she lived from 1933 until her death in 1956. The copper plate and a matching Audubon print were in Mrs. Talcott’s possession for much of that time. Priscilla Talcott Spahn inherited the print and the copper plate from her grandmother.

 

In terms of education, Priscilla received a Bachelor of Science from Skidmore College in 1956, and would go on to a Master of Arts from Columbia University in 1959. Also in 1959, Priscilla married Kirk Channing Fourcher.  They had one child, Katherine Agnew Fourcher. Mr. Fourcher passed away in 1968, and in 1969 Priscilla married Arnold Spahn. Mrs. Spahn had already remarried by the time Fries’s book was published with the her former name included.

 Soon after we [the Spahn family] moved from Ridgefield, CT to Brookfield, VT in 1972, we opened a full-service photo shop in Randolph. Framing photos and artwork came along at that time. My husband, Arnold, reframed both items using best methods current at that time- apx. 1974. Both items were displayed in our homes from that time. 

Mr. Spahn was a photograher and Mrs. Spahn became one as well. During their careers, they played an important and active role in the Vermont Professional Photographers association.

We moved to Randolph in 1989….Last year, Gifford Medical Center announced the construction of an independent living facility in Randolph Center. We became two of the pioneers, moving in on completion in August. The move involved a drastic downsizing. The … Heritage auction you took part in was just one of the steps we were forced to take.

I majored in History of Art, which partially explains why I loved the Audubon print. Our current apartment is decorated with many of my grandfather, Allen Butler Talcott’s paintings and other art. I still love photography and when we can, we photograph our travels and digitally print our work for display.

PL. 415 Brown Creeper – Californian Nuthatch

The copper plate was etched and engraved in 1838, after which prints were pulled from it and hand-colored as part of Audubon and Havell’s last dash to complete the Double Elephant Folio. The plate is therefore around 179 years old as of this writing. Although it has much oxidation, and would benefit from cleaning, it is well preserved, having been loved and cared for by the previous owner, Priscilla Talcott Spahn, since the 1950s, and having belonged to her paternal grandmother Katherine Agnew Talcott, for many years before that.

One interesting thing I noticed about the copper plate, and which was confirmed by looking up various copies of the original print, is an omission where the plate number is indicated. The typical format for the plate number on an Audubon print would be “PLATE” followed by a Roman numeral. In this particular case, the annotation ought to be “PLATE CCCCXV.” As it turns out, both the copper plate and the print are missing the word “PLATE” from the usual spot. An examination of other prints shows that the omission is the norm for copies of the original print.

This side-by-side comparison shows that the copper plate and the print are both missing the word “PLATE” before the Roman numeral that designates plate number.

 

Below are some photos of other Audubon Havell copper plates.

I took this photo in 2015 at the Stark Museum of Art in Orange TX. This is an example of a medium-sized copper plate.

 

This large copper plate for PL 106 Black Vulture is owned by Yale University.

 

This medium-sized copper plate for PL 337 American Bittern is part of the collection of the John James Audubon State Park Museum in Henderson KY.

 

So now what for this copper plate, an important artifact with its own interesting history? So many of Havell’s original plates, more than eighty percent of them, were apparently lost due to indifference and lack of foresight. It is very important to preserve the ones that remain for people to enjoy in the future. It is my intention to explore conservation options to ensure a bright future for this wonderful and important bit of Audubon history. As the process goes forward, I will try to document it here in this blog.

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