New York & Philadelphia: J. J. Audubon & J. B. Chevalier (Printed by E. G. Dorsey), 1840 - 1844. First Octavo Edition. A lovely set in a solid contemporary binding. Dark brown, half-morocco over marbled boards, matching marbled end-papers and page edges. Pages measure 252 x 165 mm. A few of the inner hinges just starting to split, but bindings are generally holding well. Expert repairs to the inner hinges of volumes 6 and 7; front end paper of volume 7 cracked and secured. Light scattered foxing on some of the tissue guards and pages adjacent to the plates, although the plates themselves do not seem to be affected and are all in lovely shape. Complete with all 500 plates, each with its original tissue guard. Half-titles in volumes 2 - 7. List of subscribers moved forward in volume one, found at the end of the other volumes.
The legendary collection of ornithological art, one of the great American color plate books. Audubon was in his mid thirties when he decided to begin the work, and including his field observations it would take over 14 years to finish. Birds of America was originally released in parts in the UK – in large folio size prints, approximately 40 by 29 inches large -- because Audubon, ironically, was not able to find the backers he needed to fund the project in the US and was forced to go to England and the Continent, where the idea of the work was received more enthusiastically. (It would cost today's equivalent of over two million dollars to produce; a massive sum for a book.) Audubon usually painted the birds in watercolors - as opposed to oil paints - and in fact had a very specialized and unique method for posing and drawing his subjects; he would use wires instead of stuffing the birds, as was common. This is partly what contributes to their incredibly rich and lifelike appearance. Less than 150 copies of the original work are known to exist, and of the ten highest prices ever fetched for a printed book, five were for Birds of America. One contemporary reviewer gushed: “All anxieties and fears which overshadowed his work in its beginning had passed away. The prophecies of kind but overprudent friends, who did not understand his self-sustaining energy, had proved untrue; the malicious hope of his enemies, for even the gentle lover of nature has enemies, had been disappointed; he had secured a commanding place in the respect and gratitude of men.”
Interestingly enough, considering what an American icon his work has become, Audubon was originally from Haiti, of French extraction, but was sent to America at the age of 18 by his father, so that he would be kept safe from the tumult of revolutionary era France. Audubon's interest in nature and art was apparent from an early age, though more practical concerns forced him into business. Soon, however, he would give this up and after becoming an American citizen, spent more and more time on his ornithological interests. It wasn’t until his early 40s, however, that he would finally be able to see Birds of America published and acclaimed. (Item #1669)