AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851). The Birds of America; from Original Drawings. London: Published by the Author, 1827-1838.
The exceptional Duke of Portland set of Audubon's masterpiece – among the finest copies in private hands of this icon of American art, and the finest color-plate book ever produced.
Four volumes, double-elephant folio (c.977 x c.645mm). Complete with the engraved title-page in each volume and with 435 hand-colored copperplate etchings with aquatint and engraving, by William Home Lizars and Robert Havell Jr. after original life-size watercolor drawings by Audubon assisted by Joseph Mason [some botanical details], George Lehman [some backgrounds], Maria Martin [some botany and entomology], and his sons John and Victor Audubon; printed by Robert Havell Sr. and Robert Havell Jr. on J Whatman and J Whatman Turkey Mill paper watermarked 1827 to 1838 [see Appendix B for a list of the watermarks appearing throughout this set]. Bound in contemporary red morocco by royal bookbinder John Mackenzie (1788-c.1850), signed with his stamp, with blank flyleaves watermarked "J Whatman 1838".
[Complete with the text volumes:] AUDUBON, John James. Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America; accompanied by descriptions of the objects represented in the work entitled The Birds of America. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1831-1849 [i.e. 1839]. Five volumes, octavo (255 x 157mm). Bound in contemporary red morocco by Mackenzie, uniform with the plate volumes.
Condition of the plates
A superlative copy in excellent condition, the plates with fresh and vibrant original coloring. See Appendix B for condition details of the plates individually. In general, defects are minor and include: some minor tears and a very few small paper flaws neatly repaired; light offsetting from some plates onto the blank verso of the facing leaf; occasional light spotting, chiefly marginal; the largest plates with a few instances of the caption being partly obscured by the binding, shaved or cropped; occasional shallow creases; occasional finger soiling in some margins. The first five plates in volume I are on contemporary guards. A copy of an independent conservation report is available on request.
Variants in the text and plates
The title-page of volume I is in the first state [i.e. before the addition of a volume number and composed in 13 lines, before the addition of two lines listing Audubon's affiliation to various learned societies]; the first ten plates are all engraved by William Lizars alone [i.e. before retouching by Robert Havell], and all the remaining plates in this volume are also early states, with Arabic numbering when called for [these are numbered 11-14, XV, 16-100]. See Appendix A for a list of the captions in the first ten plates, and Appendix B for a list of the imprints throughout.
John Mackenzie (1788-c.1850) flourished in the second quarter of the 19th century, during which time he held the office of Bookbinder to both King George IV and King William IV. Mackenzie is noted for his use of richly gilt hard-grain morocco leather, most prominently on the natural history and color-plate books of preeminent noble collections, including in the Broxbourne and Grenville libraries.
Contemporary English red morocco by John Mackenzie, signed with his stamp on the front free endpaper of each plate volume, the blank flyleaves watermarked "J Whatman 1838"; the covers gilt with a roll-tooled outer border and central panel, and with a stylized scallop-shell tool at the outer corners of the central panel; the spines richly gilt in compartments and with green morocco lettering- and numbering pieces; marbled endpapers; board edges and turn-ins gilt; edges gilt (front hinges strengthened and some minor wear expertly repaired by James & Stuart Brockman Ltd; light wear at the extremities; faint darkening to the boards of some plate volumes). The plate volumes housed in individual red leather-backed clamshell cases, and the text volumes housed together in one matching case, all by J. & S. Brockman Ltd.
Edition size and rarity
Audubon's final list of subscribers to The Birds of America comprises 161 entries, although a somewhat larger number of complete sets was certainly produced. Bibliographers estimate that the edition is likely to have comprised 175 to 200 completed copies. Susanne Low, in her various updates to Fries' 1973 census, concludes that 120 complete copies are known to survive; of these, 107 are in institutions "such as universities, libraries, museums, athenaeums, societies, and the like". Of the thirteen sets in private collections, the Portland copy is undoubtedly among the very finest.
The Dukes of Portland (c.1839-2012; sold Christie's New York, 20 January 2012, to:) – Carl W. Knobloch, Jr., gifted to: – The Knobloch Family Foundation.
William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck (1768-1854), 4th Duke of Portland, probably purchased this set as a completed set soon after Audubon finished his project in 1838, and commissioned the binding from Mackenzie. Portland was the eldest son of Prime Minister William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland; he served in various positions in the governments of George Canning and Lord Goderich, including as Lord President of the Council.
All the evidence suggests that the 4th Duke was the original purchaser; the binding is strictly contemporary (the endpapers are watermarked 1838), with no trace of earlier ownership, and other books in the library known to have been bought by the 4th Duke underscore his serious interest in natural history. Each volume in this set bears the armorial bookplate of his descendant William, 6th Duke of Portland. According to the keepers at Welbeck Abbey, seat of the Dukes of Portland, there is no consistency in the "bookplating" of the library: many books certainly acquired by the 4th Duke have no earlier bookplate than that of the 6th Duke, and others do not have a bookplate at all. While it is possible that the set was acquired by the 5th Duke of Portland, after the 4th Duke died in 1854, or by the 6th Duke when he inherited the estate in 1879, this is unlikely: Audubon returned to America in September 1839 taking with him the remaining fifteen copies still with the engraver; these he sold by 1850, recording the names of the buyers (see Fries pp. 122-23).
William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland (1800-1879), was a notable eccentric who preferred his own company and excavated an extensive network of tunnels and rooms under the estate, including an underground library and ballroom. William John Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland (1857-1943), inherited the estate from his cousin in 1879. The 6th Duke was rather more sociable than his reclusive predecessor: he carried the imperial state crown during the coronation ceremony of King George VI. Earlier, in 1913, he hosted Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to England, and took him shooting on the estate. Portland records in his memoirs that "one of the loaders fell down. This caused both barrels of the gun he was carrying to be discharged, the shot passing within a few feet of the Archduke and myself. I have often wondered if the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death there and not at Sarajevo the following year" (Men, Women and Things, London: 1937).
A magic power transported us into the forests which for so many years this man of genius had trod. Learned and ignorant alike were astonished at the spectacle... Imagine a landscape wholly American, trees, flowers, grass, even the tints of the sky and the waters, quickened with a life that is real, peculiar, trans-Atlantic. On twigs, branches, bits of shore, copied by the brush with the strictest fidelity, sport the feathered races of the New World, in the size of life, each in its particular attitude, its individuality and peculiarities. Their plumages sparkle with nature's own tints; you see them in motion or at rest, in their plays and their combats... It is a real and palpable vision of the New World, with its atmosphere, its imposing vegetation, and its tribes which know not the yoke of man... And this realization of an entire hemisphere, this picture of a nature so lusty and strong, is due to the brush of a single man; such an unheard-of triumph of patience and genius!
– Philatère Chasles, reviewing Audubon's December 1826 exhibition at the Edinburgh Royal Institution.
With his timeless masterpiece, Audubon revealed America's natural splendor to the world and to itself. America, as Audubon found it when the 18-year old emigrated from France in 1803, was a country of barely 6 million people, two-thirds of them living within 50 miles of the Atlantic coast. Lewis and Clark were just setting out West. It was a rugged, young country in which many priorities trumped the drawing of creatures that were primarily seen as food rather than legitimate subjects of artistic consideration.
Audubon is now recognized as America's first preeminent watercolorist, but his goal through the decades was always The Birds of America. The culmination of his own artistic ambition, his chef d'oeuvre, was the printed book itself, with the original watercolors preliminary to it. Audubon did not conceive the drawings as independent works of art and he did not sell them: they served as models for the printer and colorists, and he displayed them in exhibitions to attract subscribers to the books. As beautiful as they are, the drawings were functional stepping stones on Audubon's winding path.
The Birds of America is the product of total dedication over the course of a lifetime, and through countless vicissitudes. For much of his decades-long project there was a vast gulf between the scale of Audubon's ambition and the reality of his strained circumstances. "No life was at once more unusual and yet more representative of that expansive era when a national character emerged than Audubon's. Celebrate him for his wonderful birds, but recognize him as well as a characteristic American of the first generation – a man who literally made a name for himself" (Rhodes II, p.3).
John James Audubon was born on April 26, 1785 on a sugar plantation in Haiti, the illegitimate son of Jean Audubon, a French naval officer and agent for a Nantes mercantile firm, and his mistress Jeanne Rabine, a twenty-seven-year-old chambermaid who died within months of giving birth. In 1791, sensing a slave revolution, Jean sent young Audubon and his half-sister (Jean's illegitimate daughter by another mistress) to Nantes to join him and his broad-minded wife Anne Moynet. The two were legally adopted in 1794, and Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon (his full legal name at adoption) spent his early youth in and near Nantes where he received a basic education. Here, Audubon's lifelong preoccupation with birds found its earliest expression, collecting specimens during countless countryside rambles, later to be stuffed and drawn.
In 1803, worried that his son might be conscripted into Napoleon's army, Jean sent John to America, ostensibly to help manage Mill Grove, a farm that he owned near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Here he was free to indulge his boyhood interest in drawing birds, and here too he met his future wife and unsung collaborator Lucy Bakewell, the daughter of a prosperous neighbor. Their courtship included observing Eastern Phoebes together, close to a cave on Perkiomen Creek. Wanting to know if a pair were returning to a previously abandoned nest, Audubon tied a silver thread to the leg of each – possibly the first recorded instance in America of bird-banding, now a routine technique to study bird migration. It was there, too, just months after they met, that Lucy told John that she returned his love. They married in 1808 and moved first to the new settlement of Louisville, and later to Henderson, Kentucky. Despite much enterprise and industry, John's businesses succumbed to the economic crisis that followed the British blockade during the War of 1812. In July of that same year, Audubon faced another devastating blow: Norway rats got into his box of drawings, shredded hundreds of leaves and lined their nests with the scraps; by Audubon's own account he lost close to a thousand specimens that he had drawn over the years. But 1812 is also the year that Audubon became a naturalized American citizen – the source of great pride for Audubon, as his personal seal and visiting card make evident: they feature a wild turkey and the motto "America my country".
The largely unspoiled wilderness of Kentucky allowed Audubon access to a broader range of birds to hunt and draw. 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. Audubon was about to sign up for a subscription when his business partner stopped him: he cautioned him in French, with Wilson standing by, "what induces you to subscribe to this work? Your drawings are certainly far better". Audubon put down his pen; "vanity on the encomiums of my friend prevented me from subscribing" (quoted in Rhodes I, p. 67). The idea to publish first entered his mind on this occasion, but it was not until 1820, when he was declared bankrupt after the Panic of 1819, that Audubon decided to follow his passion and to gather material for a volume that would surpass Wilson. When his future looked the darkest, having lost everything except his drawings, Audubon "would prove to be phoenix-like, willing to reinvent himself after adversity – an American role model before that concept developed" (Olson, p.21). As he had remarked earlier "hopes are shy birds flying at great distance seldom reached by the best of guns" (Mississippi journal, December 8, 1810). Audubon set off for Louisiana, earning a precarious living as an itinerant artist and tutor. Lucy was left to support herself and their two sons until they eventually settled together at Bayou Sara, north of New Orleans, "a region of supernatural beauty with an abundance of birds" (Olson, p.25). Audubon's few predecessors had limited their studies to Eastern species; Audubon now extended the range of American natural history by recording the birds of the Mississippi flyway. It is while working in Louisiana and in Mississippi, after years of constantly refining his technique, that Audubon came into his full powers as a brilliant watercolorist and natural historian. "From this time on, the new draftsmanly precision of his work was matched by a new mastery of color, sensitivity to modeling, and skillful execution of realistic detail, a metamorphosis also shaped by his singular combination of media [...] Once established, his artistic vision remained unchanged throughout his production" (Shelley, p.116).
In the spring of 1824, Audubon tried to find a publisher for his work in Philadelphia – the nation's intellectual and publishing epicenter at the time. In the City of Brotherly Love he met chiefly with closed doors and animosity. Audubon's work and his rustic persona antagonized supporters of Alexander Wilson, chief among them George Ord, who had completed the last two volumes of American Ornithology left unfinished at the time of Wilson's death. Ord developed a "pathological hatred of Audubon [and] was incensed by JJA's threat to his idol's preeminence"; he blocked his election to the Academy, maligned his scientific qualifications, and ensured that no engraver or publisher would work with him (Olson, p.27). To publish his great American masterpiece Audubon had to look abroad, although this was not his first choice. In July 1826 he landed in England, where he quickly found the support and appreciation that was so lacking back home. The new arrival's exotic demeanor – buckskin frontier pantaloons, and shoulder-length hair dressed with bear grease – resonated with locals: "The Last of the Mohicans had been published in London in April and was blooming to a nationwide fad, and some who met Audubon in Liverpool judged him a real life Natty Bumppo. The letters he carried introduced him to the first family of Liverpool shipping, the Rathbones, Quaker abolitionists who recognized his originality and sponsored him socially. Within a month, he was a celebrity, his presence sought at every wealthy table" (Rhodes II, p.7). Before long Audubon had met Walter Scott, John Murray, Thomas Lawrence, Humphry Davy, and could count a young Charles Darwin in the audience of one of his lectures (Audubon is quoted three times in On the Origin of Species). "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" (DSB). Before the American Civil War, Audubon was one of just a handful of Americans elected to the Royal Society of London, the leading scientific institution of its time – another was Benjamin Franklin.
Audubon publicized his work in a series of exhibitions. At one of these, in Manchester, Audubon met F.S. Brookes, the American consul, who advised him to publish his "Great Work" by subscription, a traditional method of raising funds in advance of the great expenses demanded by such a publication. The public exhibitions became an important tool for signing up subscribers, and for generating start-up revenue through admission fees. Originally, The Birds of America was planned to be issued in eighty parts of five plates each, for a total of 400 plates. Eventually, the final count increased to 435 plates in 87 parts, as Audubon identified new species from western expeditions to various places including Texas and Oregon (Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend sent many specimens from the 1834 Wyeth expedition to the Columbia River). Capitalizing on his newfound status, and armed with his subscription model, Audubon travelled extensively to sign up subscribers in Britain, Europe, and America, among them the kings of England and France. In 1830, no longer a provincial curiosity, Audubon was received at the White House by President Andrew Jackson, and the House of Representatives subscribed to The Birds of America. That Audubon could complete his monumental project by subscription, with no institutional backing or noble benefactor, was "a staggering achievement, as if one man had single-handedly financed and built an Egyptian pyramid" (Rhodes II, p.8).
The towering format of this work was dictated by Audubon's long-standing determination that each species be shown life-size, from the flamingo down to the hummingbird – even if the former had to curve its neck in an elegant arabesque. Along the way, Audubon was sometimes encouraged to scale down his drawings for print, but he never deviated. His commitment to verisimilitude was no mere gimmickry but grounded in a profound connection with the natural world inseparable from his work. "It was Audubon's unprecedented understanding of Nature that gave eternal colour to his wilderness palette and placed in his hands a brush with eternity" (Lank, p.19). This vision came with technical complications, not least because Audubon required a quality of engraving that few had the skill to deliver. 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 then working for two of Britain's foremost ornithologists: Prideaux John Selby (1788-1867) and William Jardine (1800-1874). Upon seeing Audubon's drawings, Lizars exclaimed "My God, I never saw anything like this before!" (quoted in Rhodes I, p. 271); he put aside Selby's commission and accepted Audubon's herculean challenge. The relationship with Lizars lasted for the first two parts (i.e. ten plates), after which a strike by Lizars' colorists caused Audubon to look for another engraver. The setback proved to be a blessing. In London Audubon met Robert Havell Jr, a "brilliant printmaker" with "an instinctive understanding of Audubon's aesthetic. Havell, a master of translation, would prove to be his ideal collaborator... The genius of Havell's burin and his sophisticated use of aquatint were unmatched" (Olson, p.30). Havell was a gifted artist in his own right, whose understanding of the artistry as well as the technology was of immense benefit to Audubon. Havell often improved Audubon's compositions; "fully a third of the plates contained some Havell elements not found in the original watercolours" (Lank, p.18). The quality of Havell's engravings mark "an unprecedented achievement in printmaking" (Olson, p.30). After Havell's first prints had come off the press, Audubon took a set to Lizars who "admired them much; called his workmen, and observed to them that the London artists beat them completely" (Audubon, quoted in Rhodes I, p.299).
The Birds of America is considered "the most spectacular color folio print series ever produced [and] one of the world's preeminent natural history documents. Superbly conceived and executed, it eclipsed all others then and now, and is acknowledged to be the finest work of colored engraving with aquatint in existence" (Olson, p.30). The vivid originality and realism of Audubon's print masterpiece made an immediate impact on his contemporaries: with the first part just printed, Audubon visited Edinburgh's Royal Society – he laid the sheets down on the table and records: "the astonishment of everyone was great, and I saw with pleasure many eyes look from them to me" (quoted in Rhodes I, p.285). Thomas Bewick, whose own books were enormously popular with the public and influential among natural historians, "expressed himself as perfectly astounded at the boldness of my undertaking" (quoted in Rhodes I, p.287). Turning the pages of this book is as exhilarating today as it was then, but these contemporary reactions underscore the extent to which Audubon's work broke with tradition and introduced new insights. "In fact, animal art can be divided into two eras, before Audubon and after Audubon. Once he showed the way, there were many very competent artists [John Gould, Edward Lear, Joseph Wolf, etc.] who adopted his method of depicting more or less life-sized birds in lifelike poses, placed in some kind of setting. This artistic revolution ushered in the golden age of natural history illustration" (Lank, p.14). On a broader level, Audubon's work encouraged a shift away from the perception that the natural world is merely there to be quarried at man's whim – this is the reason that, since the 19th century, his name has been associated with one of the world's foremost conservation groups. "Along with his contemporary, Charles Darwin, Audubon changed forever the way in which we see the natural world" (Lank, p.10).
Fine Bird Books, p. 57; Fries, The Double Elephant Folio (Chicago 1973; rev. 2006, ed. Susanne Low); Lank, Audubon's Wilderness Palette (Toronto: 1998); Low, A Guide to Audubon's Birds of America (New Haven: 2002); McGill/Wood, p. 209; Nissen IVB 49; Olson, Audubon's Aviary (NY: 2012); Rhodes I: John James Audubon: The Making of An American (NY: 2004); Rhodes II: "John James Audubon: America's Rare Bird", www.smithsonianmag.com, 1 December 2004; Shelley, "Drawing Birds. Audubon's Artistic Practices", in Olson [see above]. For the Ornithological Biography see also: Ayer/Zimmer, pp. 18-20, 20-21; Copenhagen/Anker 17, 18; Ellis/Mengel 96; McGill/Wood, p. 207.