Antiques and Art Around Florida — 2014-2015 Season
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Feature Articles: Audubon In Florida
Sheila Hollihan-Elliot

In the late 1700’s, early 1800’s, engravers made series of handcolored prints showing flora and fauna from the newly discovered lands around the world. These prints were sold by subscription to fund the succession of prints and were intended to be bound by owners into large illustrated books.

Kentucky woodsman John James Audubon, who had always loved studying and drawing birds, in 1819 conceived of his own great work – a subscription of large life-sized bird paintings of all The Birds of America.

As an artist, Audubon was a fearless pioneer and innovator. He recounted that as a child growing up in France, he learned how to draw according to the methods of the great painter David. In a field diary, he implied it was then he learned to make a grid background for an arrangement of objects to more easily enlarge the scene and more accurately draw the items. Later in life, Audubon used a grid background when painting his American birds. Everything else, Audubon needed to learn and invent on his own. Whereas other wildlife painters back then drew sterile “scientific studies” for wealthy amateur scientist patrons, Audubon wanted to express the drama and excitement of the wild America he loved for everyone to enjoy – so he devised pliable wire structures to arrange his specimens into the poses and activities he saw in real life.

Unique for a painter at that time, Audubon didn’t consider the bird painting as his work of art, but the finished print as the work he wanted to be known for. So, he was not concerned how he created the painting. Sometimes he asked talented friends or the printer himself to paint in the backgrounds. Far in advance of 20th century ideas of “mixed media” art, Audubon didn’t hesitate to use different materials in the same painting – plain graphite pencils, transparent watercolor, opaque “Chinese white” and gouache, pastel, ink, etc. – so long as the mixtures gave the subtle effects of reality. In one painting, he ground gold and painted over the powdered metal with transparent glazes of dark color to give the sheen of the feathers on that bird – other times he blended soft pastel for fuzzy chick down, or smoothed graphite pencil over the back feathers of a blackbird to give the slightly shiny surface. Sometimes he painted over feathers with thin glazes of egg albumin or vegetable gums to give a gloss. Basically, “anything goes” was his painting premise - in a real pinch, he would even cut out a bird and re-positioned it knowing that the correction would not show in the final print. So even though we see Audubon’s work as detailed, carefully painted very realistic works, the painting techniques he invented as a self-taught artist are actually forerunners of the experimental creative techniques we see artists use a century later.

Being an experienced wilderness explorer in the manner of Crockett and Boone, Audubon was capable of exploring the whole United States to paint all the birds, but he knew that by concentrating on the natural flyways of migrating birds and their wintering grounds, he could spend less time traveling and more time painting. So he made numerous birding trips to Louisiana, the Carolinas, and Florida.

By 1824, Audubon had enough artwork created to bring to Scotland for Lizars to begin the print series; however, the project didn’t work out so he continued to London where printer Havell took over. Havell, besides doing the huge copper plate printed engravings on Whatman watermarked paper, dedicated a room of 50 talented women artists who hand colored the black and white etchings according to the original Audubon paintings. The entire series of 435 plates, along with Audubon’s extensive writing about each bird, was completed 12 years later in 1838. Edition size was meant to be 200, but somewhere between 161 and 175 complete sets were actually published. There are 120 known complete sets in the world today and only 12 of those sets are privately owned.

Printing technology took a giant leap forward with the invention of Chromolithography. In this process, separate lithograph stones for each primary color were printed on a single sheet of paper, resulting in full color prints immediately without costly and variable hand-coloring.

Audubon’s son worked with Julius Bien in NYC starting in 1858 to re-issue the large plates in chromolithography. The results, on nonwatermarked paper, are considered a tour-de-force of 19th century lithography.

Unfortunately, the turmoil of the Civil War interrupted the project and only 106 of the original 435 prints were ompleted by 1860 when the Audubon family’s finances failed. The number of complete sets produced are estimated between 50 and 100. Many single prints are in private collections, and occasionally can be found on the market – The Audubon Society of the Everglades, for example, just received an anonymous donation of Bien prints to be used for education and fundraising.

Other reproductions have been made throughout the years, in book form as well as various sized posters and prints. However many feel only the Havell and Bien prints are “original” antique Audubon prints.

Recently though, Bob Hall of Zebra Publishing, LLC, in West Palm Beach, in association with the National Audubon Society, has begun a revolutionary Centennial Subscription Edition, limited to 200 copies, of the original large Havell prints using 21st Century advanced digital photography and printing processes. He is able to bring the pictures back to the clean bright images Audubon painted before the ravages of time yellowed the papers and darkened the colors. The results are breath-taking.

In 1863 the New York Historical Society purchased from Audubon’s widow, 432 (of 435) of Audubon’s preparatory watercolors, plus 40 bird watercolors not used for the prints. The 433rd study was donated in 1966, for plate 426, the California Condor which will be exhibited in the 2015 NYHS exhibition. Two original watercolors, for plates 84 and 155 (Blue-grey Flycatcher and Black-throated BlueWarbler), are not known to exist and have been assumed to have been destroyed. The NYHS has searched for over 100 years and they have not appeared, even in private collections – so watch for these watercolors in your collecting excursions – you might find a treasure! Today, NYHS has the largest holdings of Audubon-related material in the world. Periodically, NYHS displays their entire Audubon Collection, March 13–May 10, 2015, being numbers 305- 435 of the watercolors. Included will be some of the more familiar Florida birds – pelican, anhinga, roseate spoonbill, flamingo, heron, ibis, and the stunning snowy egret. Audubon himself had grown to recognize that many birds were endangered by the encroaching farmland and civilization into the nation’s wilderness and it was the slaughter of the snowy egret for feather’s for women’s hats in the 1900’s that prompted the formation of the Audubon Society as a conservation movement. The Florida Audubon Society, headquartered in Miami, maintains several wildlife sanctuaries throughout the state you can visit.

In Florida, the Audubon House Gallery of Natural History in Key West, commemorates Audubon’s painting trip to the Keys in 1830. This small museum/gallery contains prints from various editions, and is a great starting place to learn what to look for when exploring for that Audubon print discovery. The Geiger tree found in the front yard of the house was used as the setting for Audubon’s painting of the White-Headed Pigeon.

And should you find that forgotten Audubon print discovery on your collecting expeditions, remember that these are works on paper and thus at risk in the bright light and humidity of Florida weather – make sure you store your prints in a clean air conditioned humidity controlled environment. If you frame, use museum quality chemically stable non-acidic framing materials (the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress web sites give recommendations) and that you hang the picture out of direct sunlight.

Happy hunting!

Sheila Hollihan-Elliot, Audubon Society of the Everglades board member

(NYHS photos courtesy of the collection of the New York Historical Society/Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions.)