The Birds of America
Of the many treasures that can be found in the Grosvenor Rare Book Room, John James Audubon’s The Birds of America is one which is difficult to miss. This famous 19th century set of 4 double elephant folio volumes features 435 magnificent hand-colored plates of American birds. What makes these volumes such a sight is the fact that each page measures two by three feet – as Audubon drew all of the birds life-sized. Although the plates were originally issued in 87 parts, they were collected into 4 volumes, each one weighing approximately 50 pounds. The Rare Book Room set is one of less than 120 complete sets in existence. Originally owned by Charles Howard Williams, it was presented to the Grosvenor Library by his daughter, Mrs. Frederick L. Pratt, in 1931.
John James Audubon was born on April 26, 1785 in Santo Domingo (now Haiti), an illegitimate son of a French naval officer and his mistress. In 1789, following the death of his mother, Audubon was raised by his father and stepmother in Nantes, France. In his youth Audubon studied a variety of subjects, but developed a particular interest in nature, birds and drawing.
In 1803, Audubon was sent to manage and live at Mill Grove, a family estate and farm outside of Philadelphia. However, rather than paying attention to his work, he spent much of his time hunting and developing his skill for drawing birds. As a result, Audubon lost the estate in what would be the first in a series of failed business attempts.
One positive that did come out of Mill Grove was that Audubon met Lucy Bakewell, whom he married in 1808. Audubon became involved in many business ventures and held a variety of jobs such as dry-goods store owner and taxidermist which resulted in the young couple moving several times. Lucy helped support the family by working as a teacher and governess. Together they had two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, and two daughters who both died very young.
Audubon spent his free time going on excursions to collect specimens and drawing birds. After he experienced some successful times in business, finances became so strained that at one point Audubon went to jail for bankruptcy in 1819. In order to earn a living he started doing portrait sketches. With few prospects, Audubon determined around 1820 that he would locate and paint every bird in America, setting out into the wilderness with only his gun, art supplies and an assistant.
By 1826, Audubon had amassed many illustrations and composed somewhat exaggerated descriptions of his adventures and observations. He decided to sail to England in search of a publisher for what would become his masterpiece, The Birds of America. Audubon hired William H. Lizars and later, Robert Havell, to engrave his paintings. Lizars engraved and printed the first 10 prints and Robert Havell and his son took over the work in September 1827. Robert Havell, Jr. saw the folio through to completion following the death of his father in 1832.
Audubon oversaw the engraving, printing and coloring of his prints. In order to pay the printer, Audubon painted, lectured, held exhibitions and sold subscriptions for The Birds of America. The work was issued in 87 parts between 1827-1838 whereby subscribers would receive 5 images in each shipment – 1 large, 2 medium and 2 small prints – and then have them collected and bound together later. Audubon garnered enough fame from his work to afford him a decent living thereafter in which he settled in New York City but continued to travel in search of more birds. Later, he published a beautiful work on mammals with the help of his sons and friend John Bachman entitled The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.