AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851). The Birds of America; from Original Drawings. London: Published by the Author, 1827-1838.
No sales tax is due on the purchase price of this … Read more PROPERTY OF THE PROVIDENCE ATHENAEUM, SOLD TO BENEFIT THE ENDOWMENT FUND*
AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851). The Birds of America; from Original Drawings. London: Published by the Author, 1827-1838.

AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851). The Birds of America; from Original Drawings. London: Published by the Author, 1827-1838.

"Double-elephant" broadsheets (954/968 x 631/650 mm). Engraved title-page for each volume and 435 hand-colored, etched and aquatinted plates, by William H. Lizars (Edinburgh), Robert Havell, Sr and Robert Havell, Jr (London), after Audubon's original life-size watercolor drawings, on J. Whatman and J. Whatman Turkey Mill paper with watermarks dated 1827-1838 (see Appendix B).

First state of the title in volume I, containing 13 lines (before the addition of two extra lines listing Audubon's memberships to learned societies and without volume number). The plates in this set are arranged in order of publication (not by families) and numbered I-XVII, 18, XIX-XXII, 23, XXIV-XXXI, 32, XXXIII-LII, 53, LIV-LXXV, 76, LXXVII-CCCCXXXV.For a comparison of the states of the legends on the first ten plates in this copy with Waldemar Fries' listing of the variants, in his landmark monograph on the double elephant folio, see Appendix A.

Two paper stocks were used throughout the production, both bearing the name of the English paper-maker James Whatman. William Balston, the apprentice and successor of the younger James Whatman, shared the rights to the old Whatman company and used the watermark "J Whatman"; the Hollingsworth family had the rights to the watermark "J Whatman Turkey Mill." The sheet size of the paper is known as "double elephant," measuring 39½ x 29½ inches, approximately the same size of the drawing paper that bears the same name. For watermarks in the individual sheets of this set, see Appendix B.



The Providence Athenaeum's copy of Audubon's Birds of America was ordered unbound as loose sheets for exhibition purposes, through which the Athenaeum hoped to recuperate some (if not all) of the daunting subscription costs for the work. By 1847, the complete set of loose plates were bound in four volumes by the New York binder James Sinew at a cost of $60. In 1929, each plate was linen backed and the plates were rebound into eight volumes by F.J. Barnard & Co. of Boston at a cost of $1,208 (more than the original subscription cost).

Most of the prints had been protected physically by the linen backing, but by the early 1990s there was growing concern for deterioration because of what appeared to be the animal glue adhesive which had darkened and could have discolored the reverse of each print. In 1995, the Athenaeum contracted the Northeast Document Conservation Center to remove each of the prints from their linen backing and conserving any defects using the highest archival standards. This project was completed in April of 1998 at great cost.

The conservation project was extremely successful, and apart from a slight discoloration at edge extremes (predominantly in Vol.I) and some small abraded areas on some sheet versos, the linen-backing was imperceptively removed from the plates. Each print was matted by NEDCC in a window mat of 4 ply 100 ragboard with alkaline buffer, mounted using Japanese paper hinges and wheat-starch adhesive. Archival cover sheets have been placed between the window mats and the plates themselves. The matted plates are housed in 44 solander boxes custom built to size through University Products, Inc, of Holyoke, Mass.

At the time of the de-lining, twelve plates and three title-pages were backed with RK29 japanese paper using wheat starch paste, as they had sustained earlier damage while bound. These prints tended to be those typically challenged at the beginning or end of a volume, and were creased and abraded, occasionally with slight loss. Through the earlier rebindings, the prints had been trimmed slightly. The sheet size was 38" x 25 1/4", which was slightly smaller than the original size. With some of the larger images, the trimming had shaved the title or plate numbers.

For a plate-by-plate condition analysis see Appendix B.

John James Audubon was born on April 26, 1785 in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (now Haiti). He was the illegitimate son of Jean Audubon, a French sea captain and agent for a Nantes mercantile firm in Santo Domingo, and Mlle Jeanne Rabin(e?), his Creole mistress. His mother died within a year of her son's birth, and young Audubon and his half sister (Jean's illegitimate daughter by another mistress) were sent to Nantes in 1791, where they joined their father and his wife Anne Moynet. The two were legally adopted in 1794, and Jean Jacques Foughre Audubon (his full legal adopted name) spent his early youth at Nantes and Coukron, were he received a minimal elementary education. Here, Audubon's lifelong preoccupation with birds founds its earliest expression, as he spent endless hours collecting specimens from his countryside rambles, later to be stuffed and drawn.

In 1803, following the loss of the family's fortune, when French political control of Santo Domingo had ended, John James was sent to his father's farm near Philadelphia, where his boyhood interest in drawing bird specimens grew. Here he met his future wife Lucy Bakewell, the daughter of a prosperous neighbor. They married in 1808 and moved first to the new settlement of Louisville, and later to Henderson, Kentucky, where John James failed as merchant and miller. In 1812, Audubon became a naturalized American citizen.

The largely unspoiled wilderness of Kentucky allowed Audubon an increasing range of birds to hunt and draw, and lacking formal artistic training, he worked hard at developing a new method of mounting dead birds on wires as an aid to delineation. In 1810, Audubon briefly met the distinguished ornithologist Alexander Wilson at Louisville, where he saw the first two volumes of the artist-author's pioneering American Ornithology. He later implied, perhaps correctly, that his own drawings were, even at that time, better than Wilson's. Although the idea of publication first entered his mind on this occasion, it was not until 1820, following bankruptcy, that Audubon set out by flatboat for Louisiana, with the single goal of adding to his portfolio of bird pictures. He worked precariously as an itinerant artist and tutor, leaving much of the burden to Lucy of supporting herself and their two sons. They settled on a plantation near New Orleans called Bayou Sara. Finally, Audubon came into his full powers as a brilliant painter of birds and master of design, chiefly working in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In the spring of 1824, he sought publication of his work in Philadelphia and New York. Failing this, he travelled to England in 1826. Originally, The Birds of America was planned to be issued serially in eighty parts of five plates each, for a total of 400 plates. The final count, however, would increase to 435 in 87 parts, owing to discoveries of new species made by Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend on the Wyeth expedition to the Columbia River in 1834. The monumental format of this work was dictated by Audubon's insistence that each species be shown life-size and his determination to depict all the known species found in North America. It soon became evident to Audubon that to publish the work he had envisioned, he must travel to Britain, where through exhibitions of his drawings he came in contact with the scientific community. One of his early acquaintances here was the historian and botanist, William Roscoe, who helped arrange these exhibitions. At one such exhibition in Manchester, he met the American consul, F.S. Brookes from Boston, who advised him to publish his "Great Work" by subscription, a traditional method of raising funds in advance of the great expenses involved in such a publication--which Audubon anticipated would take 14 years to complete.

"The dramatic impact of his ambitious, complex pictures and a romantic image as 'the American woodsman' secured Audubon entry into a scientific community much preoccupied with little-known lands. He met the leaders of society and science and was elected to the leading organizations, including the Royal Society of London. Among his friends were the gifted ornithologist William Swainson, from whom he learned some niceties of technical ornithology, and the orderly, brilliant Scottish naturalist-anatomist William MacGillivray. The text for Audubon's pictures, separately produced at Edinburgh, emerged as the five-volume Ornithological Biography [a set of the text volumes is included with the lot]. MacGillivray edited this for grammatical form, and he also contributed extensive anatomical descriptions to the later volumes" (DSB).

In Edinburgh, the printer and zoologist, Patrick Neill, a fellow member of the Wernerian Society, directed Audubon to William Home Lizars (1788-1859), "the best engraver in the city" who was currently engraving for Prideaux John Selby (1788-1867) and Sir William Jardine (1800-1874), Britain's foremost ornithologists. Lizars was so impressed with Audubon's drawings, that he put aside the work he was currently doing for Selby and agreed to take on the Herculean task of printing the plates. For the time being, Audubon had found his engraver, and could now concentrate on seeking patronage for the work, which took him to the noblest homes of Britain and Europe, and to the new markets of the young American Republic--as may be seen from the original list of subscribers.

The relationship with the engraver Lizars was not long-lasting. During the engraving of the first two parts (each containing five plates), Lizar's colorists went on strike, causing Audubon to search for another engraver for his "Great Work." Audubon went to London, where he met Robert Havell, senior member of the well-known family of artists and aquatinters. At fifty-eight Havell, Sr felt he was too old for such an undertaking leading him to find a younger engraver for the project, which ultimately led to his own estranged son Robert Jr, an accomplished engraver working at the time for Colnaghi. The two were reconciled and entered upon a successful business partnership, known as Robert Havell and Son. A life-long friendship was established between Audubon and Robert junior, and together they created the greatest of all bird books, arguably the highest achievement of ornithological art.
As a subscription publication, The Birds of America was issued over a decade according to demand, and the plates bear a range of imprints, which varies from set to set. We know that Robert senior died in 1832 and that Robert junior then styled himself R. Havell. Fries cites the variants in the names on the first ten plates, which are likely to cause the most confusion as they were the ones engraved by Lizars. They were handed over to the Havells as soon as they had been engaged for the project, and the imprint was amended to reflect this. The earliest states of plate I have "Engraved by W.H. Lizars Edinr.", while later states have "Retouched by R. Havell Junr." Although Havell junior engraved all the plates after number 10, there is no evidence to support a conclusion from the final variants of plates III, IV, V and X, that Havell completely re-engraved the plates, despite the removal of Lizars name from the imprint. Some plates bear no distinction between the senior and junior Havells. Others mention Lizars engraving, but Havell senior printing and coloring (e.g. plate VII), or Robert junior retouching and Robert senior printing and coloring (see Appendix B for imprints on the plates in the present set).


Although the final list of subscribers to The Birds of America totaled 161, a somewhat greater number of sets certainly was produced. Bibliographers of the double-elephant folio have calculated the edition size at approximately 200 completed copies. In her updating of Fries' 1973 census, Susanne Low writes, "119 complete copies are known to exist in the world today. 108 are in institutions such as universities, libraries, museums, athenaeums, societies, and the like. 11 are in private hands." This figure of complete known copies has been updated to 120, and includes the Fox-Bute copy which was on Low's list of "vanished" copies. Since 1973, 20 copies of the book have been sold. Of these, twelve have been sold on a sheet-by-sheet basis and are dispersed, and another set was incomplete, lacking volume IV. The most recent copy to appear at auction was the Fox-Bute copy, which was sold in these rooms in March 2000 for $8.8 million--a world record price for any printed book sold at auction.


The Providence Athenaeum (incorporated June 1831), original subscriber. On 9 January 1832, the Board of Trustees at the Providence Athenaeum, less than one year old at the time, considered the subject of subscribing to Audubon's Birds of America. It was an adventurous endeavor for the fledgling institution. It would be four years before they merged with the Providence Library Company, an eighty-year old institution more likely to have undertaken such a feat. Yet the Board approved of the idea, though they required a creative means to finance the purchase. Feeling that subscription was not practical unless the cost could be met without drawing upon the funds of the library, Secretary Thomas Webb and a committee for selecting books formed a consortium of twelve subscribers and prepared a report of their intentions:

"It is deemed highly desirable by the Board of Trustees that the Providence Athenaeum should be possessed of Audubon's great work on Ornithology, as being admirably calculated for giving character to, and establishing permanently the reputation of the institution Being desirous of patronizing so noble a design, and assisting at the same time in building up an institution that bids fair to prove highly beneficial to the community in which we reside, we the subscribers agree to advance the sum [of $25 each] in order to defray the expense attendant on the purchase of the Plates that will have been issued by the time our order reaches London" (this and the following quoted in Fries, pp. 301-303).

Furthermore, the group felt a sense of national duty to support Audubon: "Though American in its origin and its objects, it has received but trifling encouragement in this country and were it not for the timely and munificent aid derived from foreign sources, this grand undertaking, like many that have been heretofore projected among us would have come to naught, and the author's years of exertions, of bodily fatigue, and mental anxiety would have profited him nothing; his youth of labour would have been followed by an age of toil."

The twelve-member group agreed to transfer all rights and title of the work to the Athenaeum, "provided the sums by us expended, with interest thereon are refunded, or to present the same to the institution, provided the receipts obtained by [their] exhibition should be sufficient to cover our expenses," and provided that the Athenaeum agrees to subscribe to subsequent plates.

By November 1832, the plates already published were on view. The subscription had been handled by the Boston firm of Marsh Capen & Lyon and their agent in New York, William Johnson. While the latter wished the first 100 plates to be bound, the Athenaeum wanted loose prints which could be exhibited. At their first exhibition, intended to raise further funds, the reaction to the plates was not financially successful. Only a very small sum was collected to further the subscription and the Board was forced to conclude that the subscription "must at present be deferred." After the issue languished for several months, an agreement was reached whereby the subscribers surrendered their title to the published plates in return for additional shares in the library. At a Board meeting in November 1834, a motion was passed authorizing the Board "to receive from the Proprietors [i.e. the subscribers] the numbers of Audubon's Birds of America and to pay for same by issuing certificates of stock in the institution." The Board also agreed to be responsible for the balance of the subscription.

Audubon himself had first made reference to their subscription in a letter written from New York on 1 April 1833, where he included the Athenaeum in a list of New England subscribers. And final reference to the Athenaeum's subscription is provided in his journal. When visiting Providence in 1840 after the completion of his great work, he wrote on August 10: "Visited Athenaeum and laid my Claim." And on the 12th he added: "The Athenaeum won't pay without an account being presented and says that 10 plates are missing in the lot? Nous Verrons!"


Ayer/Zimmer, pp. 18-20; Copenhagen/Anker 17; Fine Bird Books, p. 57; Waldemar H. Fries, The Double Elephant Folio (Chicago 1973); Susanne M. Low, An Index and Guide to Audubon's Birds of America (New York 1988); Low, Catalogue of the New Birds of America Section of the Audubon Archives (New York 1993); Low, A Guide to Audubon's Birds of America (New Haven and New York, 2002); Nissen IVB 49.
Special notice
No sales tax is due on the purchase price of this lot if it is picked up or delivered in the State of New York.


View All
View All