The Complete Audubon – HistoryMiami puts the spotlight where it belongs

THE EXHIBITION – WHAT YOU WILL SEE (continued)

A Primer on Print Condition
When looking at an original Audubon print, the viewer sees the interactions between four things — the original sheet of paper; the printing as it was done in Lizars’ or Havell’s shop during the period of 1826 to 1838; the process of coloring whenever that occurred (usually soon after the print was pulled, although sometimes years later); and the impact on the colored print of handling, display, storage, and all other actions that might affect it over its 175-plus years of existence. This exhibition provides a wonderful opportunity to appreciate what an antique print actually looks like and how prints change as they age. Although the set was conserved, the original character of the prints as antiques has been well preserved due to careful and conservative treatment approaches.

Trimming
This folio’s history is immediately apparent in what you see from the beginning of the exhibition to the end. First and foremost, one can perceive the impact of the binding and conservation process (which resulted in the matting of the prints). As a twice-bound (and then finally disbound) set, the size of the paper margins were reduced over time. In the case of all small and medium images, this is no barrier to seeing the entire printed area. In the case of the largest images, however, the possibility exists that some imagery or text was trimmed away. No matter how the prints are presented, this trimming is part of the folio’s history, and cannot be changed. I applaud the fact that a number of the large image prints are “floated” in their mats to show all edges, but many are not. As a consequence, the impact of past trimming is not always apparent. Some of the large images appear to have text hidden by the mats (e.g., plate or part number is not visible on a number of prints, and credits to Audubon and Havell are occasionally truncated at either end).

PL 386 Great White Heron

The great white heron plate is floated rather than matted. This allows you to see the full image, even the part that “breaks” through the margins.

 

It is only fair to note that matting sufficiently over edges is a more protective practice than floating, and the compromise to seeing sheet edges was probably done to protect the long-term integrity of the print, but I was very curious about the relative impact of matting and trimming on what I could not see. In one or two rare instances, the mat seems to materially impact the drama of the imagery, the best example being PL 216 Wood Ibis (Wood Stork) where the bird’s beak and tail feathers, as originally printed, break through the image boundaries. In contrast, this phenomenon is fully visible in PL 386 Great White Heron, where the print is unmatted.

Paper tone
When looking at the larger groupings of the prints, it is easy to see that the paper has darkened to different degrees over time; most likely the primary cause of these differences is the original paper formula. The paper used by Havell was manufactured by two mills, the Balston Mill (which used the watermark J WHATMAN) and the Hollingsworth Mill (which used J WHATMAN TURKEY MILL). It is likely the two types of paper looked more or less identical when first produced. Audubon typically used the paper from at least one of these mills (the “regular” Whatman from the Balston Mill) for his paintings, so it could be that supply or cost dictated supplementary use of the Turkey Mill type. The watermarks also include the year of the paper’s manufacture (varying from 1826 to 1838 for both types of paper).

Audubon used paper from two different mills in the Double Elephant Folio. Although the paper was probably very similar in appearance when manufactured, the paaper tone varies due to the different ways the two types of paper age

Audubon used paper from two different mills in the Double Elephant Folio. The paper on the three prints to the left and center are darker in color than the two prints to the right. Presumably, the darker three are from one mill while the two on the right are from the other.

 

The two types of paper age differently, with Turkey Mill tending to become darker over time than “regular” Whatman, thus the present variation in paper tone in HistoryMiami’s set most likely relates to variations in the original paper manufacturing processes. The watermarks for the HistoryMiami set have never been systematically recorded on a print-by-print basis, so I could not confirm the relationship between paper tone and the manufacturing mill. It appeared to me that the earlier numbers had more dark-toned prints than the later numbers, but this was only an impression.

PL 425 shows bleed-through (or offsetting)

The ghost of a California Condor hulking ominously behind some tiny Anna Hummingbirds.

Offsetting
Overall the vast majority of the prints are unmarred by significant stains, although a good number exhibit visible “offset” (the migration of ink to the plate’s image side from a sheet of paper in front of the affected plate) or “bleed-through” (the migration of ink to the image side from a sheet of paper that is behind it). These two conditions are often grouped under the term “offsetting.” There are many interesting examples of this, but the most striking is spotlighted in the comments for PL 425 Columbian Humming Bird, which exhibits bleed-through from PL 426 Californian Vulture.

Tears
Another interesting condition issue can be seen in a group of sequential prints (Plates 182 to 188) from what would have been the second volume, each with a very long (repaired) tear that goes into the image area. From their appearance, the tears must have occurred as a consequence of a single incident. Reflecting the way the plates were oriented in the volume, these long tears can be seen on the top left side of plates with vertical composition (the image taller than it is wide) and on the top right side of those with a horizontal composition (the image wider than it is tall). It is easy to imagine the horror of the person or people who were there when the incident occurred, perhaps the dropping of a volume, or a careless cut with a razor that went through a protective barrier, or some other undocumented cause. We are unlikely to ever know the story of these tears with certainty since museum staff do not know the cause. A written description of the set from 1935 (Fries, The Double Elephant Folio, pp. 287-288) suggests the damage occurred later.

JJA_0293_small

PL 182 Ground Dove. This is the first of seven sequential plates with a long repaired tear. The repair can be seen by locating the light bulb reflection on the mat (top left). The tear extends into the paper moving slightly leftward, passing right of the part number, then moving slightly leftward as it crosses into the area of the foliage. Repairs of this sort prevent further damage and do not necessarily detract that much from the beauty of the plate.

 

Staining
Other than offset, only a couple of prints suffer from noticeable staining, e.g., PL 216 Wood Ibis and PL 61 Great Horned Owl. In the case of the latter, the staining does not really detract from the overall impact of the birds.

Color
Color is one of the most transient properties of antique prints, at least those that are exposed to light. The color on this set is generally excellent with no fading. Occasionally colors can change over time (e.g., darkening due to changes in the chemical composition of the paint or the glazes applied over the paint), but I noticed very little of that sort of thing in this set.

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