Audubon’s art, as interpreted through his close collaboration with printer Robert Havell, speaks for itself, drawing to it people who love birds, prints, and art. The Double Elephant Folio story is a complex one, not easily absorbed in the space of a few hours or even a few days. It is a story I have been enjoying since 1998 when I bought my first books on Audubon and my first original prints. It is a story I continue to enjoy every day.
Recently I visited HistoryMiami to see The Complete Audubon: The Birds of America. Curated by the head of Special Collections, Rebecca Smith, this ambitious show (running through May 31st) includes all 435 original prints from HistoryMiami’s Double Elephant Folio (or Havell Edition) of The Birds of America by John James Audubon. This spectacular and valuable work is very rare — only 120 complete sets exist, most of them bound (usually in four very large volumes) and held in the collections of museums, libraries, universities and other institutions.
Because of the size, value, and fragility of the books, casual handling of a folio is out of the question, and it is very rare to be able to see all the prints at one time, even if one visits an institution that embraces public access to their set. The Louisiana State University Libraries holds an annual Audubon Day (requiring advance reservations) that provides an hour of access to their folio to 40 people per hour. The 2015 viewing will be held from 10am to 2pm on April 25, 2015 on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. The time required for turning pages prevents most visitors from seeing more than a fraction of the folio on even a well-planned visit.
With the benefit of one of the few disbound complete sets of the Double Elephant Folio of Audubon’s Birds, HistoryMiami is one of only a very small number of institutions that could even consider the possibility of framing and exhibiting all 435 Audubon folio plates on the walls of their galleries. Hung (more or less) in order of the plate numbers, the display reveals to visitors the essence of the Audubon story, the 435 life-sized bird images that form one of the most important and influential masterworks of American art and American natural history.
As an Audubon dealer, I’ve had many opportunities to view Havell Edition prints at events both private and public, but it is rare to see more than 50 or 60 at a time. Even when an entire folio is theoretically available (e.g., at the rare auction exhibitions for folio sales), viewing is constrained because someone has to show the plates. It is completely unheard of, to be free to wander through a folio at your own pace, to “park” yourself at will in front of a favorite print, or to go from one specific print to another to satisfy yourself on some point. But that is what HistoryMiami is offering any visitor who makes it there by May 31st.
If you have the ability to go, you might want to depart right now, or at least make concrete plans for your visit. If you think you can’t make it, or are on the fence, I hope the following discussion of the exhibition will change your mind. This is a unique opportunity to see a complete Double Elephant Folio in a single “helping.” To the best of anyone’s knowledge, it is the first time a folio has been displayed in this way. Given the complex logistics and expense, the opportunity to see a full folio in this way may not present itself again in our lifetimes…although we can always hope!
This lengthy post continues on several pages, each dealing with a different topic. The topics are:
- p2 Overview: The Birds of America
- p3 The Exhibition – Introduction
- p4 The Exhibition – What You Will See
- p5 The Exhibition – What You Will See (continued)
- p6 The Exhibition – Additional Points of Interest
- p7 The Exhibition – Audubon’s Writings and Other Works
- p8 HistoryMiami’s Double Elephant Folio: Past and Future
- p9 How the Prints were Made
- p10 Acknowledgements and References