Published: April 30, 2002
John James Audubon & Robert Havell, Jr: Artist’s Proofs from The Birds of America
NEW YORK CITY – From May 2 to July 12, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc will exhibit “John James Audubon & Robert Havell, Jr, Artist’s proofs from The Birds of America.”
John James Audubon’s keen observation, passion for the natural world and remarkable aesthetic sensibility combined to produce one of the world’s preeminent natural history documents. Publication of the four-volume The Birds of America, the grandest and most sumptuous colorplate folio ever produced, was a massive undertaking without precedent.
Audubon’s compositions, the product of more than 20 years of travel and observation, were initially engraved on copper by William Lizars of Edinburgh. After the first ten plates were completed in 1826-27, however, Lizars’ colorists went on strike and Audubon transferred the project to the London firm of Havell & Son. It took Robert Havell, Jr, eleven years to publish the set of 435 images, which were finally completed in June 1838.
Comparison of the original watercolors with the prints, along with review of the instructions given by Audubon to Havell, makes immediately clear the extent to which the artist relied upon his engraver. With great artistic skill and admirable creative suppleness, Havell provided landscape and floral backgrounds where they were lacking, enhanced compositions by repositioning birds, integrated multiple drawings into single engraved compositions, or alternately, took a drawing crowded with too many subjects and created two balanced and appealing plates from it.
Research and scholarship on Audubon and “the great book” has benefited from a wealth of archival material, which include his original watercolors (The New-York Historical Society), and a large body of original correspondence and journals (Houghton Library, Harvard University; Bienecke Library, Yale University; American Philosophical Society; and the Princeton University Library). Until now, however, there has been little research into the nature of the creative process between Audubon the artist-ornithologist, and his printer Havell.
This exhibition, four years in the making, brings before the public eye for the first time in more than a half-century, a large group of artist’s proofs from The Birds of America. Descending within the family of Havell, the 61 prints on exhibit were approved by Audubon for use as the “patterns” or guides for the colorists employed to hand finish the plates for what the artist called his “Great Work.”
These proof impressions represent the most significant find in Audubon research in recent time. Many of the prints are inscribed (as the original watercolors are) with instructions to Havell regarding engraving and coloring. A comparison with more than 250 of the original watercolors confirmed a matching of the handwriting among the three or four different manuscript hand present on both the proof prints and the original watercolors. Research at The New-York Historical Society has also revealed a set of 15 proof prints in its collection, identical in every aspect to those in the Hirschl & Adler exhibition, which had passed virtually unnoticed since their acquisition by the society in 1947.
Joseph Goddu, director of the department of American prints at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, has written a catalog for the exhibition, whose essay, based upon painstaking review of original correspondence between Audubon family members and Robert Havell, sheds new light on the exact methods employed in the printing of the work, and the critical roles played by the various Audubon and Havell family members in the monumental project.
In addition to the 61 artist’s proofs on exhibit, there will also be on view two of the original copper plates used in the printing of the work, as well as a selection of prints from the standard Havell edition of The Birds of America, published in 1826-38.
Hirschl & Adler Galleries are in a landmark townhouse, 21 East 70th Street. The galleries are open Tuesday through Friday, from 9:30 am to 5:15 pm, and Saturdays from 9:30 am to 4:45 pm. Summer hours, which go into effect as of May 20, are Monday through Friday, from 9:30 am to 4:45 pm. For information, contact Joseph Goddu at 212-535-8810.
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