Audubon Print Primer

Audubon original editions can be confusing. We'll help you sort it all out.


Preparatory Watercolor Compositions

"My drawings were first made entirely in watercolors."
Not watercolors in the sense we are accustomed to, as Audubon's watercolors used mixed-media, such as papers, adhesives, glazes, pastels, graphite, oil paint, egg white, gouache, chalk and more.

The watercolors were Audubon's original works, preparatory compositions or studies to the subsequent producing of the Birds of America. These watercolors were often painted by Audubon 'on the spot' in the field. The collection of 433* watercolors that Audubon supplied for his paramount work, the Birds of America, stands as the world's preeminent natural history document of the 19th century, and one of arts finest achievements. The freshness, eloquence, and grace of his watercolors reveal a meticulous observation of the natural world.

Audubon's watercolors depicted for the first time, life-size, all known species of North American birds in characteristic poses. Each painting presented a drama in the life of the subject, and Audubon succeeded in surpassing what he viewed as the stilted and constrained efforts of previous naturalists. Their works were, in his words, 'stiff.' Audubon's images live to this very day.

"As I wandered, mostly bent on the study of birds, and with a wish to represent all of those found in our woods, to the best of my powers, I gradually became acquainted with their forms and habits, and the use of my wires was improved by constant practice." John James Audubon

After acquiring specimens, Audubon inserted wires in freshly killed birds to simulate lifelike postures. These models were then positioned in front of a grid background, so as to draw them accurately to scale.

Not easily satisfied with his drawings, Audubon often wrote notes on the drawing itself so that the engravers and colorists who were to follow would enhance his work.

Doubtless, considering the working conditions in the field, lack of modern optical equipment, and his being self-taught, the producing of these watercolors represents a monumental achievement.

The watercolors themselves were never reproduced as such by Audubon, as they were a means to the end, a preparatory step to the final goal of producing and publishing prints from engravings based on the watercolors.

It is truly amazing that the vast majority of the original watercolors, are still in existence. Audubon's widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, sold them in 1863 to the New-York Historical Society. We suggest you take the time to see these priceless works of America's most famous artist/naturalist.
* Although there are 435 engravings in the completed Birds of America, these were produced from 433 watercolors. Two of the 433 were each the basis for two etchings. Two are also missing, thus the collection of original watercolors in the New-York Historical Society today totals 431.

Having a substantial number of watercolors now ready for engraving, Audubon traveled to Philadelphia, then the center of publishing in the young United States. However, he was unable to find a publisher, willing to produce his works, and thus brought his art abroad to England. He first contracted with a William Lizars of Edinburgh. After completing only ten etchings, Lizars' colorists went on strike, and Audubon was forced to find another publisher. This would be Robert Havell, Jr. of London, whose engravings were considered superior to those of Lizars.

Original Double Elephant Birds of America

Audubon and his sons produced several print editions. The most famous, and most valuable, is the original 'double elephant' folio entitled Birds of America. These are sometimes termed the Audubon/Havell prints, Havell being the primary engraver. These prints were produced by using as a basis the watercolor compositions or studies that Audubon accomplished mainly in the open field. These were then taken to London, where Havell's shop was located. Havell, often under the direct supervision of Audubon himself, would then engrave with precision tools a reverse image of the watercolor study. These engravings were on copper plates, some plates being as large as 27 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches, and others being smaller for the smaller images. When finished, the plates were inked and dampened paper ( all paper being double elephant size, 27 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches, untrimmed) was placed upon them, and then both were run through rollers of a press. The paper was then pulled, or peeled off the plate. What resulted was a properly oriented black and white image, no longer reversed.

Each black and white print was then colored by a team of colorists employed by Havell, closely noting not only the watercolor studies, but also notes that Audubon himself often wrote upon the watercolors. It is these prints then, that are finally referred to as the Audubon originals. Most of these originals were then bound together in four leather books. Over the years many have been unbound and the binding holes trimmed away. Thus, there may be small variations in the above size. Further, the large borders of some smaller images were often trimmed away by owners, in order to fit their print into a smaller frame.

The Octavo Bird Editions

When the production of the double elephant prints was nearing its completion, Audubon began a new undertaking. This was to be a miniature edition of the Birds of America, accompanied by text. This work is often termed The Royal Octavo Edition, the octavo referring to the size of the paper being about 1/8 the size of a normal folio, or about 6 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches. Audubon himself called it "The Birds in Miniature" and you will also hear it simply being termed the 'miniatures'. It was produced in Philadelphia, USA, by John T. Bowen.
Octavo editions were reductions of originals, this being accomplished through the camera lucida process, which through the use of a prism, allowed Bowen to project a reverse image of the original print in reduced size onto the smaller stone. (These were stone lithographs, not copper plate engravings)

The first edition, and the most sought after by collectors of the miniatures, was published in 1840-44. About 1,198 sets of the first edition were produced. It was printed and colored by J. T. Bowen in Philadelphia, although plates 136 - 150 were done by Endicott in New York. The publisher of the first edition was Audubon himself in New York, and J. B. Chevalier in Philadelphia. Other octavo editions of the birds followed the death of Audubon in 1851, these being dated: 1856 and published by Victor G. Audubon; 1859 also published by Victor Audubon using Roe Lockwood and Son of New York; 1860 also by Victor Audubon and Lockwood; 1861 by John Woodhouse Audubon and Lockwood; 1863 (no information available); 1865 by John Woodhouse Audubon, New York; and 1871 by George R. Lockwood.

The Imperial Quadrupeds

This incredibly detailed work is officially termed The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. These mammals of North America were published in three volumes, dating 1845, 1846, and 1848. Somewhat more that 303 Imperial sets were printed. These are rare and very valuable today. These lithographs were printed on paper sized at 22 x 28 inches, termed the imperial size, and also defined as the elephant size. (Note that this is smaller than the double elephant size of 27 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches.) Besides the size, these prints are identified by the legend at the lower right "Lith. Printed & Cold. by J.T. Bowen, Phila."

The Octavo Quadrupeds

Audubon's sons saw the need to reduce the size of the Imperials, and beginning in 1849, the octavo edition of The Quadrupeds of North America was published in three volumes. Volume 1 was followed in 1851 with the second volume, and the final, the third volume was published in 1854. Between 1,999 and 2,004 sets were published in this first edition. The size for these editions was about 6 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches. A second edition was published in 1852-54, a third in 1856-60, and a fourth in 1870.

The Bien Edition

The Bien edition prints of the Birds of America were produced by the Audubon family, and thus are properly termed originals. Unlike the Havell edition prints which were produced in England, the Bien Edition prints were produced completely in America. Thus, they are truly American originals. In 1858, about seven years after John James Audubon passed away, his younger son John Woodhouse Audubon initiated an ambitious project to reissue the Birds of America to solve some of the mounting financial problems. He recruited the Roe Lockwood Company in New York city to publish the works and Julius Bien for lithography. Unlike the Havells which were produced from copper engraving plates, Julius Bien utilized the newly emerging chromolithography process as a way of reducing the costs of production.

Chromolithography utilized different sets of printing stones to produce a given plate, some with different colors to produce the final colored image. The use of different stones occasionally resulted in very slight misregister of colors on the dark outlines of birds and background, thus serving as a charming reminder of chromolithography process. Larger images were printed on a single page as in the Havell edition, whereas smaller images were printed two per page. All the larger images as well as some smaller images carry the credit "Chromolithy by J. Bien, New York, 1860". Thus these images are commonly referred to as the Bien edition plates.

Unfortunately, the start of the Civil War in 1860 brought an abrupt end to this project (and a financial ruin to the Audubon family) after only about 105 pages were printed. It was said that about 100 copies of each page (with bird images) were produced, but most of them did not survive.

Audubon Print Abbreviations & Numbering

"I am feted, feasted, elected honorary member of societies, making money by my exhibition and by my painting." John James Audubon

Many have wondered about the abbreviations appearing on the lower edge of Audubon prints, and by the system of numbering for various editions of Audubon prints. The following may be helpful.


M.W.S. (Member of the Wernerian Society)
F.R.S.E. (Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh)
F.L.S. (Fellow of the Linnean Society)
F.R.S. (Fellow of the Royal Society)

Explanation of print numbering

(Double elephant folio)

You will find two numbers on each Audubon print, one at the top left and another at the top right. What do these signify?
Audubon, Lizars, and Havell produced about 200 engravings each of 435 different images. These engravings were released to the public in sets (also called 'numbers') of five prints each. There were 87 different sets (or numbers) of five prints each that were required to publish all 435 prints. These sets usually contained one large bird, one medium size , and three smaller birds. The five birds in any one set would have the same set number. It is thus a group number. Therefore, the number found usually in the upper left corner of each print is the group number for every bird print released in that particular set of five.

The number usually found in the upper right hand corner is the individual plate number, from 1 to 435, and it is most often in Roman numerals.

You will sometimes find much smaller numbers, such as 1 or 2, immediately next to a bird on many prints. These correspond to the same number shown in the script area below the image and designates the sex or if the bird is an adult or immature.

Newer Post

1 comment
  • I have three bien originals that I need gone and would like to sell. Not sure if u buy or u could send me in the right direction. I’m only 1 1/2 hours away and would bring them to u if your interested? I talked to other dealers that deal online they want me to take out of frames that’s crazy they have been in those frames since 1865! I’m scared they will never gone back together like they are now.also if I rip a original taking it out there just to damn old to be taking apart. At least I think. Thank for your time please get back to me thank u

    EDward kOokogey on

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published