The Complete Audubon – HistoryMiami puts the spotlight where it belongs

OVERVIEW: THE BIRDS OF AMERICA

In 1820, 35-year-old John James Audubon made the monumental decision to pursue his dream of producing for publication a collection of life-sized illustrations of all the birds of his adopted American homeland. Inspired by Alexander Wilson, the author and illustrator of American Ornithology, Audubon believed he could do better – he was a far more talented artist and his ambition was not limited by practical considerations. His collection of beautiful life-sized drawings, he believed, could be turned into a book of life-sized illustrations.

A plate after Alexander Wilson (from AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGY). Although his own work was inspired by Wilson, Audubon had complex feelings about this important figure in the history of American ornithology.

A plate after Alexander Wilson (from AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGY, circa 1810s-1820s) shown in the exhibition. Although Wilson was not a great artist, his text is still respected as the first scientifically rigorous description of North American birds.

 

Through talent, perseverance and force of personality, Audubon eventually managed to turn his dream into a reality. After rejection and failure in Philadelphia in 1824, a speculative visit to England in 1826 brought surprising success – enlistment of a printer and the interest and backing of important people. By the end of 1826, Audubon began publication of what would be the first edition of The Birds of America. Variously called the “Double Elephant Folio” (which refers to the large size of the paper) or the “Havell Edition” (which refers to the printer, Robert Havell, who worked with Audubon), this edition of The Birds of America would occupy Audubon (and many others) until 1838, and well into 1839 for the completion of all related writing projects. Audubon would eventually reissue The Birds of America in a small format (the first “octavo” edition, or as Audubon called it “the little work”). After Audubon’s death, his sons Victor and John reissued the octavo edition a number of times, and in 1859 began publication of another life-sized edition (called the Bien Edition after printer Julius Bien). This last project was never completed due to financial difficulties and the deaths of the sons, Victor in 1860 and John in 1862.

A group of water birds from Audubon's BIRDS OF AMERICA

A group of water birds from Audubon’s BIRDS OF AMERICA

The Havell Edition of The Birds of America was issued by subscription in a total of 87 parts (which Audubon called numbers) of five plates each. The first plate in each number was always a “large” image that took up most of the page, the second was a “medium” image (typically filling about half the space on the page), and the final three were “small” images (filling about one-quarter of the space on a page). The intention was to sustain the subscriber’s interest by ensuring variety in each number. Print runs were not big — rather the prints were pulled as needed, based on the current number of subscriptions. If a person subscribed in 1836, they might receive a Plate 1 Wild Turkey printed in 1836 if no copies were available from earlier printings. In that case, the print would reflect all the changes made to the copper plate between 1826 (when that copper was first etched) and 1836. Most subscribers had their plates bound in four volumes as Audubon intended, and most received a 5-volume text (called a letter-press) titled Ornithological Biography that included essays on Audubon’s experiences, plus general descriptions of all the birds. Finally, subscribers received a final index-like book titled Synopsis of the Birds of North America, which included more technical descriptions of the birds.

The five prints of the 45th number

The five prints that make up the 45th number. Bottom: PL 221 Mallard Duck (large image), PL 222 White Ibis (medium image). Middle: PL 223 Pied Oyster-catcher (small image), PL 224 Kittiwake Gull (small image) . Top: PL 225 Killdeer Plover (small image).

 

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