AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851). The Birds of America, from Drawings Made in the United States and their Territories. Philadelphia: J. B. Chevalier, [1839-] 1840-1844.
7 volumes. 8vo., (10 1/8 x 6 4/8 inches). Half-titles, subscribers' lists at end of each volume. 500 hand-colored lithographed plates after Audubon by W.E. Hitchcock, R. Trembly and others, printed and colored by J.T. Bowen, wood-engraved anatomical diagrams in text (intermittent offsetting and spotting, particularly to the tissue guards and corresponding text leaves at the beginning and end of each volume). Original publisher's deluxe binding of maroon morocco gilt, elaborately decorated in gilt (extremities a bit rubbed).
The first octavo edition of John James Audubon's masterpiece, a tall copy with colors very clean and fresh.
Audubon created 65 new images for the octavo edition, supplementing the original 435 of the double-elephant folio edition of 1827-1838. The resulting series of 500 plates constitutes the most extensive American color-plate book produced up to that time. The Philadelphia printer J.T. Bowen reduced the double-elephant plates by camera lucida and the resulting lithographs show significant changes in the backgrounds and compositions. The original configurations of the elephant folio were altered so that only one species is depicted per plate. The text revision of the 'Ornithological Biography' was rearranged according to Audubon's "A Synopsis of the Birds of North America" (1839).
"The genesis of Audubon's career as a painter may be said to have taken place in 1810, when the Scots-American ornithologist Alexander Wilson stopped in Henderson to seek subscriptions for his 'American Ornithology'. Audubon was approving of Wilson's efforts and was prepared to subscribe when his partner Rozier intervened. Rozier pointed out that the partners lacked the discretionary funds for such an investment and also suggested that Audubon was much the superior artist. Wilson departed without the hoped-for subscription. Not until 1820, however, when he was thirty-five and after years of disappointment in business, did Audubon conclude that he wanted to publish an ambitious folio of all American birds. Accompanying him on the first of several collecting and painting trips was young Joseph Mason, the first of several associates who later would paint at least fifty backgrounds for Audubon's bird plates. Following this trip, Audubon spent some months in New Orleans making a modest living sketching portraits and then as tutor to Eliza Pirrie at the plantation owned by the latter's father on Bayou Sara. Throughout, he gradually began accumulating his bird pictures.
"A trip to Philadelphia in 1824 to look into the possibilities of publication and other support was a disaster. Audubon foolishly antagonized the artist Titian Peale and the engraver Alexander Lawson, who were preparing illustrations for Charles Lucien Bonaparte's 'American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of Birds Inhabiting the United States, Not Given by Wilson'. With his criticisms of Wilson's artistry, he also infuriated the Philadelphia businessman and naturalist George Ord, Wilson's friend, editor, biographer, and champion, who became Audubon's lifelong enemy and did whatever he could to block Audubon's success in the United States. Following Ord's lead, most Philadelphia naturalists and engravers refused to assist Audubon with his project. Audubon now concluded that he had no choice but to go to Europe to seek out engravers and printers, and this he did with money he and Lucy earned from teaching the children of the Percy family of Beechwood Plantation near New Orleans in 1825 and early 1826.
"Arriving in Liverpool, England, in July 1826, Audubon soon found the support and fame that had so long eluded him in the United States. He went on to Manchester, where the response to his work was tepid, and then to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he found not only more support but William H. Lizars, the engraver he had been looking for. There he matured his ideas concerning his project and decided on an elephant folio on a subscription basis. He took time to fulfill a longtime ambition by meeting Sir Walter Scott in January 1827. He was much impressed, as was the Scots author with his visitor's artistic talents. With the engraving of his paintings well under way, Audubon went to London in the spring of 1827. Soon after his arrival, he was informed that the men coloring his engravings at Lizars's firm in Edinburgh had gone on strike.
"Fortunately, he soon was put in touch with the London engraver Robert Havell, Jr., who was to be Audubon's valued collaborator on the four-volume Elephant Folio project for the next eleven years (1827-1838). When his money ran low, Audubon raised what was needed to pay his engravers with portrait sketches, and he painted portraits in oil and watercolor animal scenes. He also solicited subscriptions in England and in France, where he met Baron Georges Cuvier, the leading French zoologist of the time, who was both gracious and supportive… Audubon's final trip to England began in the summer of 1837. He remained for two years and oversaw the completion of both publication projects. A total of 435 "double elephant" aquatints had been produced. Only a relative few of the copper plates for these engravings exist today. Some were destroyed by fire in 1845, and others were sold years later as scrap. 'A Synopsis of the Birds of America', a one-volume index to both the folio edition of the 'Birds of America' and the 'Ornithological Biograph'y, was published in London in 1839, principally for folio subscribers. A smaller octavo edition of the Birds, combining engravings on a smaller scale and the text of the 'Ornithological Biography', was published between 1840 and 1844 and sold extremely well" (Keir B. Sterling for ANB). Ayer/Zimmer, p.22; Benett, p.5; McGill/Wood, p.208; Nissen IVB 51; Reese 34; Sabin 2364.