Designs from an American Woodsman

Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
March 31, 2004

Recognized as one of the greatest undertakings in both the art world and ornithology, Audubon's Birds of America (1827-1838) is a testimony to nature. Even today, more than 150 years after its completion, it remains a primary resource for scientists and scholars. Since Audubon's time, four species of American birds have become extinct.

Belted Kingfisher

 Belted Kingfisher, plate 77, from Birds of America, 1827-1838, 
38 x 25 inches,copperplate engraving from hand-colored print by John James Audubon

 

In 1820, at the age of thirty-five, John James Audubon undertook to capture on paper every bird native to America, "in full size, in full color, and in natural settings." Over the next four years he produced more than 400 watercolors of nearly 500 species. He was called variously "madman," "naturalist," and "American woodsman."

Audubon's methods distinguished him from other illustrators. He often painted with both hands at the same time. More important, he refused to work from stuffed models but preferred to position freshly killed birds with wire, thread, wood, and cork. In an effort to depict his specimens at their actual size and to better gauge their proportions, he posed them against ruled paper.

Of his famous kingfisher, Audubon wrote, "I pierced the body of the fishing bird and fixed it on a board; another wire passed above his upper mandible held the head in a pretty fair attitude, smaller ones fixed the feet according to my notions, and even common pins came to my assistance. The last wire proved a delightful elevator to the bird's tail, and at last there stood before me the real kingfisher."

Publishing this monumental work proved as great a challenge as creating the original watercolors. After seeking support, both financial and artistic, in Philadelphia and New York, Audubon traveled to London, where he secured the services of Robert Havell Jr., a printer and engraver. Under the supervision of Audubon, Havell produced the four-volume, double-elephant-folio edition on handmade paper measuring thirty-eight by twenty-five inches. All together, the four volumes comprised 435 hand-colored prints impressed from copperplate engravings. Duke's copy is bound in marbled-paper-covered boards and red, straight-grain morocco leather.

Audubon and Havell labored on their first edition from 1827 to 1838, selling the work to subscribers without text to avoid the necessity of providing free copies to English depository libraries. (A separate work of accompanying text, Ornithological Biography, was produced in five volumes, 1831-1839.) They most likely produced between 175 and 200 complete sets, of which 125 have survived. Approximately a dozen sets remain in private hands today.

Duke acquired its set of Birds of America in 1930, thanks to the work of William K. Boyd, then director of the Duke libraries. Until 1964, it was displayed in the East Campus Library's upper galleries. The volumes are now on display in the Mary Duke Biddle Rare Book Room at Perkins Library, in exhibit cases built especially for them.