AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851) - HAVELL, Robert (1793-1878) - HAVELL, Henry Augustus (1803-?). Turkey Buzzard (Cathartes aura). Proof, or pattern, plate for plate 151 of "The Birds of America". London: Robert Havell, Jr., 1832.
Single sheet (ca 33 4/8 x 22 4/8 inches). THE UNIQUE ARTIST'S PROOF OR PATTERN PLATE FOR AUDUBON'S ICONIC TURKEY BUZZARD, engraved aquatint with original hand-colour, annotated lower left "[B]uzzard" (worn and torn with loss to the extremities).
Provenance: with Sotheby's, New York, 15th June 2006, lot 34; purchased by Michael Zinman
Published as plate 151 in Audubon's magnum opus “The Birds of America”, London: Robert Havell, Jr, 1827-1838. This plate hung in the same room as the colourists employed by Havell, and was used by them as a template for their meticulous colouring of each published plate. As such it shows signs of use, it was likely coloured by Henry Augustus Havell under the supervision, and to the exacting standards of Audubon himself.
Audubon's "The Birds of America", is undoubtedly the grandest and most sumptuous colourplate folio/book ever produced, is arguably the most important natural history publication of the 19th-century, and one of the finest achievements of American art. The first few plates were engraved and coloured in Edinburgh by W. H. Lizars', but when the colourists went on strike Audbon was forced to transfer the store of completed prints, in various stages of completion, to London, where by good fortune he happened on the Havell family of publishers. In a letter to his wife Lucy during the summer of 1827 he wrote: "I have made arrangements with a Mr. Havell, an excellent engraver who has a good establishment containing printers - colourers and engravers so that I can have all under my eye when I am in London and no longer will be stopped by want of paper, or coppers that M.r Lizars was obliged to order from here; sometimes with risks and at all events with a considerable expense extra..." (Joseph Goddu, "Artist's Proofs for The Birds of America", Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 2002, page 26)
Once the engraving had been "developed to its final 'state', and a finished version of the black-and white print achieved, it was ready for colouring. A hand-painted master proof or colouring guide was then worked up for the artist's approval for use as a 'pattern' to be copied by the colourist...Robert Havell, Jr.s, brother, Henry Havell, worked up many of these master colour guides, or 'patterns', and was often called upon to supervise the staff of colourists. In 1832, the artist's eldest son, Victor Gifford Audubon, arrived in London to supervise the printing, and by 1834 was joined by his mother... Once the pattern was approved, it was given to a team of colourists for them to copy; each person was assigned a specific colour and element in the composition to finish" (Joseph Goddu "Artist's Proofs for The Birds of America", Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 2002, page 26).
For five of the eleven years publishing "The Birds of America" took, Audubon was travelling Great Britain and the Continent to secure subscribers, collecting overdue receipts, and to America gathering subjects for further drawings and so plates. So Havell oversaw the engraving and colouring of the plates, forwarding proof plates of each number to Audubon to approve or edit, to assure that the engraving and colouring remained as faithful to Audubon's original vision as possible.
Audubon's own account of the Turkey Buzzard begins in volume II of the "Ornithological Biography", beginning at page 296: "This species is far from being known throughout the United States, for it has never been seen farther eastward than the confines of New Jersey. None, I believe, have been observed in New York; and on asking about it in Massachusetts and Maine, I found that, excepting those persons acquainted with our birds generally, none knew it. On my late northern journeys I nowhere saw it. A very few remain and spend the winter in New Jersey and Pennsylvannia, where I have seen them only during summer, and where they breed. As we proceed farther south, they become more and more abundant. They are equally attached to maritime districts, and the vicinity of the seashore for food.
"The flight of the Turkey Buzzard is graceful when compared with that of the Black Vulture. It sails admirably either high or low, with its wings spread beyond the horizontal position, and their tips bent upward by the weight of the body. After rising from the ground, which it does at a single spring, it beats its wings only a very few times, to enable it to proceed in its usual way of sailing. Like the Black Vultures, they rise high in the air, and perform large circles, in company with those birds, the Fork-tailed Hawk, Mississippi Kite, and the two species of Crow. The Hawks, however, generally tease them, and force them off toward the ground.
"They are gregarious, feed on all sorts of food, and suck the eggs and devour the young of many species of Heron and other birds. In the Floridas, I have, when shooting, been followed by some of them, to watch the spot where I might deposit my game, which, if not carefully covered, they would devour. They also eat birds of their own species, when they find them dead. They are more elegant in form than the Black Vultures, and walk well on the ground or the roofs of houses. They are daily seen in the streets of the southern cities, along with their relatives, and often roost with them on the same trees. They breed on the ground, or at the bottom of hollow trees and prostrate trunks, and lay only two eggs. These are large, of a light cream-colour, splashed toward the great end with large irregular markings of black and brown. The young somewhat resemble those of the Black Vulture, and take a long time before they can fly. Both species drink water freely, and in doing this immerse their bill to the base, and take a long draught at a time. They both breed at the same period, or nearly so, and raise only one brood in the season.
"I have found birds of this species apparently very old, with the upper parts of their mandibles, and the wrinkled skin around their eyes, so diseased as to render them scarcely able to feed amongst others, all of which seldom failed to take advantage of their infirmities. I have represented the adult male in full plumage, along with a young bird, procured in the autumn of its first year".