The Various Print Editions of John James Audubon’s Birds of America
by Terry Wright

Between 1826 and 1838, John James Audubon generated one of the most important art and natural history works ever created. The Birds of America was a bold undertaking at once original and also not so. Wilson had already cataloged the North American species then known. However, Audubon presented his images in life-like poses, often with other interesting flora and fauna. And, he presented his images at or close to life-size adding a dimension of realism lacking up that point. Due to the success of the original subscription, Audubon and his heirs published two further editions of this great work. Birds of America has also been much admired and copied over the last 170 years. Literally dozens of reproductions, facsimilies, books, calendars and art posters have recreated these images.

One important aspect of Audubon print collecting is sorting out and identifying the various print editions. Because there are so many reproductions, all with varying characteristics and with values ranging from virtually worthless to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single print, it is important for the collector to become acquainted with the various editions and be able to discern the origin, quality and potential of any image being considered for acquisition. This alone is a great reason to work with a reputable and experienced art dealer. Fortunately, there has been a lot written about the various Audubon print editions and even a novice can do a pretty fair job of determining which print edition a print came from and it’s approximate value. This article is intented to provide basic information about the various editions to aid the collector in making an identification.

The first Audubon birds were not published works, but prototype watercolor paintings produced for Birds of America. The New York Historical Society owns them and periodically displays these original priceless works. They are not ‘on the market’ and therefore not discussed as an ‘edition’ of John James Audubon’s works. These are the originals.

The so-called ‘first edition’ of Birds of America have come to be known as the ‘Havell Edition’ or just the ‘Havells’. This reference is to the London engraver Robert Havell (and his son) who created the actual engravings. Havell actually took the project over from the Edinburgh engraver W.H. Lizars after his staff went on strike. Lizars worked on plates #1-10 and the Havells finished the rest of the project of 435 plates. All prints in this edition were created in a format called Double Elephant Folio (DEF), which represents a sheet size of approximately 26.5” x 39.5”. The prints were created from copper plate etchings and hand colored on paper watermarked with the name of the maker “J. Whatman” or “J. Whatman Turkey Mill (plus one of several dates of manufacture)”. Because these images were created from plates in a true press, there should be a visible plate mark on each sheet and surrounding the printed image. The watermark is the surest sign of authenticity. And, under 10x magnification, there is no ‘dot pattern’ characteristic of modern offset printing. All told, approximately 200 sets were thought to have been created. Not all sets are identical. Over the years, Audubon/Havell reworked the plates as they added new subscribers and updated their knowledge of the species. Fries, and later Low, have provided a census for known surviving sets.

Because of the great success of Birds of America, first edition, Audubon created a miniaturized replica of his large format Birds of America using the ‘camera lucida’ to scale the images. This work is known as the ‘Royal Octavo’ edition, after it’s size of 6.5” x 10.5”, or approximately 1/8 the size of the DEF prints. J. T. Bowen (Philadelphia) and Endicott & Co. (New York) were the lithographers for this work. Each book plate was hand colored on 100% cotton rag paper. The first edition of this work was published by Audubon and J.B. Chevalier (later Roe Lockwood) in seven volumes, in 1840-44, and limited to 1200 copies. Six further editions were published through 1871. The first edition Octavo images are generally discernable from the later editions in that they did not have printed colored backgrounds (first editions were entirely hand colored). The second and later edition octavos have a printed colored background.

Audubon Print 1st Edition Octavo ......................... Audubon Print - later edition octavo

_Figure 1. First Edition Octavo ---------------------Figure 2. Late Edition Octavo

The third and final edition of Audubon’s work supervised by his family came to be known as the ‘Bien edition’ after the engraver, Julius Bien. This edition, published in 1858-60, was also a DEF edition recreating the full-sized original Birds of America. Sometimes is referred to as the ‘Second Edition’ (of the original Birds of America). This effort was ultimately aborted after the preparation of 150 images on 105 separate plates, being interrupted by the American Civil War and the Audubon family’s resulting financial troubles. Bien edition prints were produced on un-watermarked paper of inferior quality. Thus, they are often found in poor condition (foxing, oxidation, acidification, toning, embrittlement), due to aging. Because, sometimes, multiple (small bird) images were printed to a sheet they are often found trimmed, greatly affecting their value. The large and medium size Bien prints have attributions to both Audubon and Bien in the lower left and right corners respectively. The small Bien edition prints in horizontal format are printed on vertical sheets one below the other. The bottom small horizontal plate has Audubon’s name as artist in the lower left corner, and Bien’s name as lithographer in the lower right corner. The top small horizontal plate has neither the artist’s nor the lithographer’s name. The small plates in vertical format are printed on horizontal sheets left and right to each other. The left small vertical plate has Audubon’s name as artist and attribution to Bien. The right small vertical plate has no attribution to Audubon but does include Bien’s name as lithographer. Bien plates 4-5 and 4-6 are exceptions, having both names.

Audubon Bien Edition Print layout
Figure 3. Bien print layouts for small bird images. Horizontal images on vertical (portrait) oriented sheet, left. Vertical images on horizontal (landscape) oriented sheet, right. Location of attribution to J.J. Audubon and J. Bien shown in relation to each print.

 

Audubon Print - Bien Half Sheet - vertical

Figure 4. A small-bird vertical Bien print showing the attribution to J.J. Audubon (lower left) but missing the attribution to J. Bien. See Figure 3. This would have been the left hand image on a horizontal sheet, before separation.

Up to this point we have been discussing works overseen by the author, John James Audubon, and his family. All following works in this article were produced by others without the involvement of the author. Only limited edition works are discussed as these are the prints usually sought after by collectors. These works fall into one of three categories: restrikes, facsimiles, or reproductions. For purposes of this article, the following definitions will be used. A restrike is a reprint of the art-work using the original engraving plates used by the author/publisher. A facsimile is a recreation of an original art work copying the paper, image, marginalia, etc. as nearly as possible. A reproduction is a reprinting of an artist’s image in a new presentation. Table 1, below, classifies each of the editions discussed in this paper according to these definitions.

Edition

Type

Publisher

Circulation

Alecto

Restrike

Am Museum Nat. History & Alecto Historical Editions

125

Amsterdam

Facsimile

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum & Johnson Reprint Corp.

250

Abbeville

Facsimile

National Audubon Society & Abbeville Press

350

Leipzig

Facsimile

Ariel Press

1000

Loates

Reproduction

Tryon Mint inc.

1000

Oppenheimer

Facsimile

Oppenheimer Editions, LLC.

150

Princeton

Facsimile

Princeton Audubon Limited

500/1500

Table 1. Modern limited edition DEF restrikes, facsimiles and reproductions of J.J. Audubon’s Birds of America .

The very first full facsimile edition of Birds of America since the original Havell prints was produced in 1971-72 by Thearum Orbis Terrarum (Amsterdam) and Johnson Reprint Corp. (New York). This work recreated all 435 of the original Havell prints using a copy of Birds of America made available by Teyler's Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands. Each image was printed on one DEF sheet, 26.5” x 39.5”, of hand made

Audubon Print - Amsterdam Watermark

Figure 5. G.Schut & Zonen watermark with Johnson Reprint Corp monogram.

Audubon Print - Amsterdam Watermark

Figure 6. Audubon watermark with Theatrum Orbis Terrarum monogram.

100% cotton rag paper by G. Schut & Zonen by NV Fotolitho Inrichting Drommel at Zandvoort, Netherlands. Each sheet bears the repeating watermarks “G.Schut & Zonen”, “Audubon” and stylized monograms for Theatrum Orbis Terrarum and Johnson Reprint Corp along the long deckled edge. This watermark is definitive in making an identification. Eight-color offset lithography was used to create these images and this creates a small dot-matrix pattern which is easily discerned at 8-10x magnification. False plate marks are evident on a number of images. A total of 250 copies of the ‘Amsterdam Edition’ were produced in 36 parts, bound in four volumes or as loose sheets. A companion volume of text, “A Synopsis of the Birds of North America” was released in 1972 by Johnson Reprint & Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Amsterdams, because of their quality, vintage and status as the first full facsimile of Birds of America, are favored by collectors.

Ariel Press produced, in 1972-3, a DEF facsimile set of 40 birds in two volumes. This has become known as the Leipzig Edition after Leipzig, Germany where it was printed. These images were printed on heavy un-watermarked paper. An older collotype printing method was employed. This printing method is discernable due to the absence of the regular pattern of matrixed dots in modern offset lithography. Plate marks are present on the smaller images. 1000 sets were published (and by some accounts are still being produced).

In 1985, to commemorate Audubon’s bicentennial, Alecto Historical Editions, with the American Museum of Natural History, produced a limited edition of Birds of America restrikes. All told six bird plates were printed from the original Audubon copper plates last used in the 19 th century. The birds of this edition are: Turkey (male), Turkey (female & young), Snowy Owl, Mallard Duck, Canada Goose, and the Great White Heron. These were printed on Somerset mold-made 300gsm acid free paper from G.P. Inveresk Corp (Somerset, England). Each sheet was hand finished in watercolor by Egerton-Williams Studio (London). The reverse of each sheet bears ink stamps for the publisher and printer. The plate # and edition number are recorded in pencil. A total of 125 sets were produced.

Abbeville Press, in conjunction with the National Audubon Society, created another full (435 plate) DEF facsimile edition of Birds of America in 1985. The ‘Abbeville Edition’ was printed on DEF sheets using up to 13-color lithography using coated acid-free Mohawk Superfine paper from 100% alpha pulp. The paper is watermarked with marks for the Audubon Society and Abbeville press. A total of 350 sets were produced.

Princeton Audubon Limited also issued a DEF facsimile edition in 1985. Thirty-six Audubon plates from Birds of America have been printed. Archival quality 80# acid-free cover stock with toning to match the aged originals was used. Direct camera lithography was employed with up to nine different printing plates on a four-color press. Each print is embossed with the Princeton seal, and hand numbered. Five-hundred copies of the White Pelican and Turkey (male) were produced, as were 1500 copies of the other 34 plates.

Beginning in 1987, M. Bernard Loates published several DEF reproduction editions of 31 birds from Birds of America. some of these are printed on watermarked Loates Stallion Vellum 100% rag paper. Each sheet is embossed with seals for the Loates company and Tryon Mint, the printer. These prints are distinct from the others discussed in that they do not recreate the marginalia present in the Havell prints. That is, there are no plate or part numbers or attributions to Audubon or Havell, unlike the facsimile editions. Loates also uses the modern bird names and does not copy the names used by Audubon. Here follow the various editions and their characteristics (using the original Havell plate numbers to reference the images):

  • Introductory Edition (1987-8), Plates #: 20, 167, 261, 307, 386. 1000 copies on 100% cotton rag watermarked stock.
  • Tribute I Edition (1988-9), Plates #: 12, 47, 206, 211, 226. 1000 copies on 100% cotton rag watermarked stock.
  • Tribute II Edition (1989), Plates #: 7, 26, 71, 97, 242, 252. watermarked stock.
  • After Tribute II (1999), Plates #: 17, 76, 81, 91, 111, 142, 201, 216, 231, 251, 311, 333, 366, 376, 406. No watermark,
    chop marks and hand signed.
  • Masters Edition (1992), Size = 17.5" x 27", Plates #: 17, 41, 47, 76, 177, 211, 221, 242, 411, 431. 800 copies on 100%
    custom made cotton rag watermarked stock.

The final DEF limited edition to be reviewed is the Oppenheimer Field Museum limited edition. This is a facsimile edition of Havell’s plates. Produced in 2000 by Oppenheimer Editions, LLC, fifty of Audubon’s birds are recreated on acid-free 100% cotton fiber Somerset velvet watercolor paper. Digital imaging with Giclee’ printing was employed to produce these images. Each sheet is embossed with stamps for the Oppenheimer Edition and the Field Museum. The reverse of each sheet is stamped, signed and numbered. One-hundred-fifty sets were made.

References:

Braun, Robert, “Identifying Audubon Bird Prints”, American Historical Print Collectors Society, Fairfield, CT, 2001

Steiner, Bill, “Audubon Art Prints: A Collector’s Guide to Every Edition”, University of South Carolina Press, 2003

 

© February 2005 by Terrance M. Wright - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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