Audubon Restrikes: Occupying the space between originals and reproductions

Detail from the Alecto restrike of Havell Edition PL 1 Wild Turkey (Male). This hand-colored print was pulled in 1985 by Alecto Historical Editions for the American Museum of Natural History. It is one of a series of six restrikes made in honor of the bicentennial of Audubon’s birth.

Audubon is among our most widely reproduced artists. Reproductions of all types and prices are available for his original prints, and to a lesser extent for his original watercolor paintings. Most of the reproductions sold by are facsimiles, that is, reproductions that attempt to be faithful duplications of the original print or painting. Facsimiles typically maintain the same image size as the original work, and usually include all of the important text elements. If there are any additions (e.g., a number or a seal) they are unobtrusive.

Non-digital prints are generally made using a “matrix,” that is, by printing from a surface on which a design has been placed.  An original print is one made from a matrix on which the design is created by hand, while a reproduction is a print made from a matrix on which the design is produced using a photomechanical process. In the case of original Audubon prints, the matrix depends on the edition. The Havell Edition used copper plates, while the Bien, Imperial Folio, and Octavo Editions all used lithographic stones.

A restrike is a hand-made print created from the same matrix used to make the original print. Generally, restrikes are produced at a later date with a different purpose than the original print (which may or may not have been published in multiple original editions). For example, Audubon’s original octavo prints were produced and published from 1839 to 1871. The original prints were distributed as part of the various octavo editions of The Birds of America. Although the prints varied somewhat in appearance over time due to changes in the lithographic stones and other publication decisions, they were all printed from lithographic stones prepared as part of a single publication project. Publication of the octavo Birds was discontinued when the stones were destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1870. As a consequence of the loss of these stones, restrikes of original Audubon octavo prints cannot be made.

A portion of the copper plate used for the restrike of Havell Edition PL 377 American Bittern. (Photograph by Jo Whaley, courtesy of John James Audubon Museum.)

In contrast, about 80 of the 435 copper plates that were used to create the Havell Edition prints have survived to the present day. Since the 1838 completion of the edition, several of these plates have been used for restrikes, whether for working purposes (e.g., John Woodhouse Audubon making prints with the copper plates when he and Julius Bien were working on the Bien Edition), small runs for the personal enjoyment of plate owners and their friends, or in larger numbers to be used as institutional gifts or for fund-raising. These prints can generally be distinguished from the original Havell prints by the paper on which they were made, and possibly other indicators (e.g., a printed or non-printed notation on the front or back of the print). Among Audubon restrikes, some have been printed with colored as well as black ink, some were printed and then hand-colored, some were printed without color (although individual owners may themselves have decided to have them colored).

The latest copper plate to be used for a restrike is PL 377 American Bittern, owned by the John James Audubon Museum in Henderson KY. The Museum owns two of the original Havell copper plates, the Bittern and PL 308 Tell-tale Godwit (Lesser Yellowlegs). The Museum produced a small restrike edition from the Godwit plate in 2002. The new restrike of the bittern will be limited to only 100 numbered prints, 25 printed in sepia and 75 printed in black. The uncolored prints will be available for a donation of $1,000 or more to the Museum (the tax-deductible portion being any amount in excess of $500). The first plates of the edition were struck at the University of Southern Indiana on October 30, 2013 in honor of the John James Audubon Park and Museum’s 75th anniversary. This photo gallery from the Evansville Courier and Press includes five photos documenting the event. Below is a postcard announcing the restrike edition with information on how to acquire one. If you are interested, do not delay — these prints are likely to sell out in a short period of time.

Announcement for the John James Audubon Museum’s new restrike edition of PL 377 American Bittern.

Probably the best known of the Audubon restrikes were those done through a partnership between the American Museum of Natural History and Alecto Historical Editions in 1985.The six prints included in this venture were PL 1 Wild Turkey (Male), PL 6 Wild Turkey (Female and Young), PL 121 Snowy Owl, PL 201 Canada Goose, PL 221 Mallard Duck, and PL 281 Great White Heron. Using some color as well as black ink in some cases, these hand-colored prints were made using paper measuring 43-1/2 x 29-1/2 inches while most of the plates are in the range of about 38 x 25 inches in size. The prints are stamped on the back and numbered with the edition limited to 125 copies of each print (plus printers’ proofs). Having handled Alectos, I can attest to the very high quality and beauty of these prints. I currently have one Alecto in stock, the male Turkey, more information about which is available on the folio birds restrike page.

Restrike of PL 1 Wild Turkey (Male) from the American Museum of Natural History and Alecto Historical Editions.

The New York Botanical Garden, which owns the copper plates that were used to create Havell PL 194 Hudson’s Bay Titmouse and Havell PL 64 Swamp Sparrow, commissioned hand-colored restrikes of these two images in 1968. A total of 300 prints were made of each image. Printed on Arches watercolor paper, the paper measures around 30 inches x 22 inches while the plate areas are slightly in excess of 19 x 12 inches.

Detail from an uncolored print pulled from PL 194 Hudson’s Bay Titmouse. The overall edition size of 300 copies does not include the uncolored copies that turn up now and then. 

Another fun restrike was that made in 1958 of PL 277 Hutchins’s Barnacle Goose, another plate owned by the American Museum of Natural History. This beautiful restrike was done in an edition of approximately 300 prints and distributed to members of the American Ornithologist’s Union. Although originally uncolored, some owners may have had their prints colored. I recall once in the late 1990s encountering a print of PL 277 Hutchins’s Barnacle Goose at an auction preview that appeared to be an original Havell. Before the auction, the auction house took it out of the frame and it’s “true” identity as a restrike was discovered. Until recently I had in inventory one of these prints. It was on a sheet of paper measuring 32-1/2 x 26-1/4 inches. Below the plate impression of the Goose (which measures approximately 26 x 22 inches) was a second plate impression with a single-line statement that read, “Struck from the original Havell engraving to commemorate the 75th Anniversary Meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union, held at the American Museum of Natural History, in October 1958.” Interestingly, the restrike was itself reproduced in a slightly smaller size (using offset lithography) and sold at one time by the Museum.

Bottom portion of restrike of Hutchins’s Barnacle Goose showing the second plate impression that identifies the circumstances behind the making of the prints.

Because restrikes have only been done from about fifteen of the surviving Audubon Havell copper plates, it is always exciting to see a new project to produce another one. The skills required to successfully recondition a plate and produce a good restrike are rare, and these beautiful prints each has its own story, a story that extends and enhances the reputation of John James Audubon and Robert Havell, and also adds to our enjoyment of their work.

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