One of the nation’s oldest art galleries has announced that a piece of American ornithological history is up for bid. Haley & Steele, a staple of Boston since 1899, has obtained for online auction a complete collection of John James Audubon’s seven volume “great little work,” the Royal Octavo edition of The Birds of America. Though they are deemed royal due to Audubon’s choice of expanding the pages to a size larger than competitors’ bird print books, these volumes are actually smaller than earlier editions of Audubon’s representations of the nation’s indigenous fowl. The artist’s previous volumes featured his subjects in life size, with pages of 26 x 39 inches, an innovation but an unwieldy one. A complete set of the original edition at the time of its printing went for a thousand dollars. For the reprint, begun in 1840 and finished in 1844, Audubon chose to scale the books back in size and cost, producing a critical and commercial success. Using a Camera Lucida, John Woodhouse Audubon, son of the artist, faithfully recaptured his father’s groundbreaking portraits in smaller form, replete with the elder Audubon’s requisite attention to detail. Furthermore, sixty-five new specimens were added to the reprint, bringing the count of birds to 500, one type per page, up from the 435 in the somewhat rushed first edition.
John James Audubon was born in 1785 in present-day Haiti, was raised by his father and stepmother in western France, and came to America at the age of eighteen, mainly to escape conscription into Napoleon’s army. Settling in rural Pennsylvania, he took to hunting, sketching, and collecting local wildlife specimens. His real breakthrough came when he discovered that he could use wire to shape the birds that he had caught into lifelike poses, presenting more interesting, action-oriented prints than the leading artists of the day, who preferred to use stuffed birds and produced more static images.
Armed with his prints, Audubon set off for Philadelphia, and then England in 1826, where he found an audience. He also found a printer and engraver, Robert Havell Jr., who undertook the production of the first edition of The Birds of America, all four volumes of it, between 1827 and 1838. Encouraged by the success of the original printings, Audubon issued the Royal Octavo edition in seven volumes and began his next ambitious project, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, a mammalian companion piece to his ornithological work. The Viviparous Quadrupeds may not have garnered as much attention as his other prints, but with The Birds of America John James Audubon secured his place in the Academy of Natural Sciences as an honorary member and in American history as the great cataloguer of the nation’s indigenous wildlife.
The Royal Octavo volumes will go up for bid the afternoon of Thursday March 18th and will stay live through Tuesday, March 30th. They will be sold individually; prices differ depending on the desirability of the birds contained within.