A Brief Introduction to Audubon and the Original Editions

Reproduced by permission of the author - Ron Flynn

A Brief Introduction to Audubon and the Original Editions

by Ron Flynn

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was born in San Domingo, Haiti, the son of a French naval captain and a French servant girl. Audubon's real mother died shortly after his birth. Capt. Audubon and his legal wife sent young Audubon to France where he was raised.

In order to avoid conscription by Napoleon when Audubon was a young man, J.J. Audubon was dispatched to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to oversee land owned by his father. There he met and married Lucy Bakewell, who’s lifelong support was critical to Audubon's success. In their early years, Audubon did not do well in business. After many years he finally attained fame as an artist and ornithologist with the publication of his first Birds of America double elephant folio edition in London (1826-1838).

Audubon and his wife traveled the U.S., as he studied and painted wonderful life sized images of hundreds of birds. Audubon went to Scotland and England and published his first work, The Birds of America. These prints were chiefly engraved and hand colored by Robert Havell Jr. They were printed on "double elephant" folio sized sheets of watermarked J. Whatman fine wove paper. From 1826-1838 these aquatint copper plate engraved sheets, measuring about 26" x 39", and beautifully hand colored, were issued in 87 parts of 5 prints each. The complete set totaled 435 prints. They were sold by subscription, and the owners/subscribers eventually bound them into 7 volumes. It is estimated that between 160-180 complete sets of the first Birds of America were issued. Today about 110 complete sets survive, mainly in museums and other institutions. An unknown number of partially bound sets and individual prints survive. They are quite rare. The last complete bound set sold at auction for $8.8 million. Individual prints sell for thousands of dollars, with a few fetching $100,000.00 or more.

The success of Audubon's first Birds of America brought Audubon Worldwide acclaim. Following that success, he returned to America and set out to issue a smaller version that would include more birds (most newly discovered in the Western U.S.). He decided on a 1/8 or octavo sized sheet measuring about 6-1/2" x 10". He called this set The Royal Octavo Edition of Birds of America. The 1st Edition of 500 plates was lithographed and hand colored by J.T. Bowen in Philadelphia and New York from 1840-44. They were again sold by subscription, and issued in order by species in 100 sets of 5 each. It is estimated that from 1000-1200 complete sets were issued. No one knows how many complete sets and individual prints survive today. They are very popular and highly collectable. Today, a complete set in good condition would sell for over $50,000.00 at auction. Individual 1st edition prints sell at dealer's galleries from $50-$100 each, on up to $2,000.00+, depending upon popularity.

The 1st Royal Octavo Edition of Birds of America was completed under the direct supervision of J.J. Audubon. Up to eight (8) editions, some text only without plates, were issued from 1856-1889. The most important of these editions were: the 2nd (1856), the 3rd (1859), the 5th (1861), and the 7th (1870 published by Lockwood). An 1860 letterpress or text edition was issued without plates to accompany the Bien Edition.

A beige or blue-green printed colored background generally identifies the 2nd and later editions on each plate, except those with landscapes scenes. The type on the credit lines at the bottom of the later edition prints is generally bold face, as opposed to the italics on most of the 1st edition prints. Today, dealer price lists often list prices for the 1st octavo edition, and then lump all the later editions into one price list category called "later editions", with no distinction among them. Dealers with a large inventory of a particular later edition will often sell them as later edition, but give the year they were published.

Following the octavo Birds of America, the Audubons ( J.J. and his two sons, John W. and Victor G.) published and issued an Imperial Folio Edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. From 1845-48, the Audubons issued, by subscription, 150 hand colored stone lithographed images of mammals of North America, with each sheet measuring about 22” x 28”. Perhaps 300 sets of these prints were sold, and were generally bound into two volumes.

Following the success of the Imperial Folio edition of mammals, another octavo sized publication, by the Audubons, called the Quadrupeds of North America, and consisting of 155 different mammal prints, was first published from 1849-54, as the 1st edition. The Audubons, not thinking of modern day classification, identification, and distinctions, starting issuing a 2nd edition of The Quadrupeds of North America at the same time they were still issuing the 1st edition. To add to the confusion, the 1st and 2nd edition prints are indistinguishable from each other when examined side by side. As a result, the 1st edition (1849-54) and the 2nd edition (1852-55) were generally issued to subscribers without regard for which edition prints were being sent to individual subscribers. Therefore, most early sets, which were bound into three volumes, were comprised of mixed 1st and 2nd edition prints. There was a 3rd edition in 1856, and a 4th in 1870. It is estimated that about 3500 complete sets of all 155 plates were issued from 1849-55. The name of Audubon’s son, John W., appears on about half of the plates. J.T. Bowen was the main lithographer, but Nagel and Weingaertner of New York were the lithographers of 29 plates, among the first 31 plates in true 1st edition prints before J.T. Bowen replaced them. Among the artists who drew the images on the lithographic stones were Trembly and Hitchcock, whose credit lines appear on very many prints. Rarely, you will find a credit line on a print for the colorist> The only one I have regularly seen is for Lawrence.

J.J. Audubon died in 1851, before the complete 1st Edition of the octavo Quadrupeds of North America was completed. In fact, because of his health, he took no part in the production of this publication. However, he was credited with about half of the drawings for this publication because his drawings for the Imperial Folio Edition were reduced and used in the octavo Quadrupeds of North America publications. The octavo Birds of America was issued as a seven volume set, while the octavo Quadrupeds of North America was a three volume set.

In 1858,the Audubon sons (mainly Victor) set out to produce a reissue of J.J. Audubon’s original Birds of America. It was to be a D.E.F. folio sized reissue, but many of the smaller songbird images were to be printed 2 to a sheet. This publication was to sell by subscription at a more affordable price. The newly developing process of chromolithography was chosen as the means for production. Julius Bien of New York, a renowned chromolithographer of the time, was selected to produce the reissue. For a number of reasons, including the breakout of the Civil War in 1860, production was halted and the project abandoned. In all, 150 different images on 105 sheets were produced and issued. The publication was bound into one D.E.F. sized volume. It is estimated that 75-100 sets were sold. While the Bien Edition of Bird of America is more rare than the Havell Edition, according to numbers produced, retail prices for the Havell Edition prints are much higher for the same print.

This article is meant as a brief introduction only. Many of the topics mentioned in this article are discussed in detail in other articles on this website. Literally scores of books have been published on the life of John James Audubon, and many other Audubon reference books will go into greater detail about the life of Audubon and the details of the various editions of Birds of America and Quadrupeds of North America. They are available at libraries and bookstores throughout the Country. For further reading, you can search for John James Audubon books at Internet websites such as Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Also, if you have a reasonably sized library in your area, you will find many books on Audubon, or you will be able to order Audubon books using regional library lending programs.

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