Thursday, November 26, 2020

Wild Turkey and John James Audubon

Turkeys are very much associated with Thanksgiving in America - and this image is offered with my good wishes to all my American friends on this their national day of giving thanks

Did you know that the very first bird in John James Audubon's very large Birds of America is a Wild Turkey?

Wild Turkey - Great American Cock, Male
hand coloured engraving
Plate 1 of Birds of America by John James Audubon

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was an American ornithologist and naturalist but he earned his reputation as an artist and the enormous paintings - reproduced via engravings.

''No one before him in America had looked at the woods and wildlife so closely, or recorded in such exhaustive detail what they had seen.''

His paintings/prints have an incredible sense of life. Audubon travelled widely to find all the birds in the book. Unlike other painters he did not work from preserved specimens. Instead he first shot the bird and then wired it up in a natural position to draw it for his watercolour painting.  However the sense of life in the bird suggests he must have keenly observed the birds first and made more sketches of their habits.

About Birds of America


Birds of America comprises 435 hand-coloured, life-size prints (click the link to see them all).  It is the largest and most beautiful illustrated bird book ever. 
  • Originally intended to contain 400 plates, the work finally extended to an engraved title page and 435 aquatint plates, issued in 87 parts between 1827 and 1838.
  • Each of the birds is portrayed life size
  • Each plate measured around 39 by 26 inches (99 by 66 cm) - or just over three feet by just over two feet.
  • these were sold on the basis of subscriptions - for five plates at a time of one large bird, one medium sized bird and 3 smaller birds
  • Five volumes of accompanying text to these plates were published in Edinburgh and issued separately under the title ‘Ornithological Biography’ between 1831 and 1839.
The ‘double elephant folio’, as the edition became known, took its name from the double elephant paper on which it was printed, the largest size available (approx. 100cm x 67cm). To make the prints, Audubon’s original watercolour images were traced in reverse onto sheets of copper, and the lines etched into the metal using acid (the intaglio process). An aquatint was added to give a graded tonal effect. This was achieved by melting a fine resin dust onto the copper plate and exposing it again to the acid; the longer the immersion in the acid, the darker the tone. The images were then printed in black ink; watercolour was applied by hand to the finished prints by a team of colourists. Audubon's Birds of America | British Library

The original file of this Plate 1 engraving of the Wild turkey can be found in Wikimedia Commons - but be careful before you open the largest size as it's 99MB file!

The first 10 images of birds - including the Turkey - are from engraved plates created by William Home Lizars (1788-1859) an engraver based in Edinburgh. However after doing the first 10 plates - his colourists went on strike and Audubon had to engage another engraver. 

Robert Havell Jr. (25 November 1793 – 11 November 1878) of Reading became the principal engraver of the remainder of Audubon's Birds of America. His family of engravers were renowned as being among the foremost practitioners of aquatint. Havell subsequently moved to America and continued to practice as an engraver and aquatinter. When he died in 1878, he was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown.

Last year, the National Audubon Society made John James Audubon’s seminal Birds of America available to the public in a downloadable digital library (signing up for their email list is a prerequisite).

About John James Audubon 


John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) was actually born Jean-Jacques Laforest Audubon in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the Caribbean. He was the illegitimate son of a French merchant and a French chambermaid, Jeanne Rabin who died when he was 6 months old.
  • age 6 he was shipped to France to join his father
  • his childhood was spent in France with his stepmother. Here he developed his talent for drawing and his love of the natural world
  • he was sent to America when he was 28 years old to manage his father’s plantation, Mill Grove, in Philadelphia - but he much preferred studying and drawing birds to farming.
  • Both the Wikipedia article and and an interesting article in the New York Times (Central Park's Winged Tenants, By Audubon By Wendy Moonan 2003) indicate how often he failed at various endeavours before he decided upon making his passion for drawing and painting birds into his 'great idea' and a 'a very big project'.
His plan was to to publish a book of life-size reproductions of all the birds of the ‘United States and its territories’.  The project - and the book The Birds of America thereafter absorbed Audubon’s attention for much of his life and its publication took nearly 12 years to complete.

The opposition of the scientific community in America to his work explains why he had to go to the UK to find engravers for his book.

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