The Yellow Billed Cuckoo
"From Nature! How often these words are used in the faces of contradiction, when at a Glance, he who has seen the perfect and beautiful form of either a bird, a quadruped or any subject found by nature & living; discovers that it was not Living Nature the representations are made from."
The Yellow Billed Cuckoo

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON, C. 1830

Details
The Yellow Billed Cuckoo
John James Audubon, c. 1830
AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851). Autograph manuscript, n.p., circa 1829-1830.

Four pages, bifolium, watermarked "B&T Sweetapple 1829," 408 x 262mm (minor edgewear, mounting remnants at top margin of third page). Green cloth chemise, custom clamshell.

Audubon's original manuscript description of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, plate two of the Birds, prefaced by an important description of his philosophy. To accompany his ambitious elephant folio edition of the Birds of America, Audubon published the Ornithological Biography with the editorial assistance of William Macgillivray (1796-1852). Although designed to complement Birds, British copyright law compelled him to publish the volumes under a separate title or else he would have had to deposit full sets of the plates to nine depository libraries within the United Kingdom.

Here, Audubon offers a complete description the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, plate number two in volume one (1831). Interestingly, his description begins not with a physical description of the bird, but rather a summary of Audubon's overall approach to the project. With corrections and edits omitted: "Was I inclined like most persons who write on Natural history, to consider the figures given by former students, I might indeed find enough to do, but hoping or at least supposing that whoever creates the list, does so with a good intention and a wish therefore to do his best for the sake of general science, I will not criticize any more than by recommending to those who are thus well intent on the advancement of the study by which I have devoted my Life, a little more care respecting correctness in the shape of the bills, legs & feet of the species they give us as representations form nature. From Nature! How often these words are used in the faces of contradiction, when at a Glance, he who has seen the perfect and beautiful form of either a bird, a quadruped or any subject found by nature & living; discovers that it was not Living Nature the representations are made from; but I really believe I am flying from the very tract I wish to pursue and which is simply to give you an opportunity to Judge for yourself reader the truth of the delineations of my Illustrations, and again simply to give you the results of observations made in the very woods w[h]ere the Subjects, have been found and delineated!" Interestingly, while Macgillivray has been credited with giving only a light touch in his editing of Audubon's work, this paragraph was more heavily reworked than other passages. However, the overall intent in meaning remained intact. The final version appears on pages 18-20 of volume one of the Ornithological Biography. Provenance: Heirs of Grace Phillips Johnson (Christie's, New York, 26 May 1977, lot 93 (part)) [purchased by William S. Reese in that sale].

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