The Royal Octavo Edition of the Birds of America
By Ron Tyler
In 1839, when John James Audubon returned from England and the publication of one of the greatest books of all time, the double elephant folio the Birds of America, he turned his "holy zeal" on two other huge projects: The Viviparous Quadrupeds of America and what he called the "petite edition" of the Birds of America. The Quadrupeds would be a new work that would take a great deal of research and ultimately a co-author in his father-in-law the Rev. John Bachman of Charleston, so Audubon took up the miniature Birds first. It was a natural elaboration on the double elephant folio that would permit him to enhance that work as well as take advantage of the sales potential for a smaller, less expensive work. Little additional creative work would be required; he could illustrate all the species one to a plate, as he had intended with the double elephant folio; and he could include the recently documented Western birds. The most compelling reason for producing the octavo edition, however, was the continuing need to develop sources of income. The double elephant folio had provided him and his family a good living in England, but the fifteen bound and several loose sets that he brought back with him would not last them long.
Audubon planned the "little work," as he also called the royal octavo edition, along the general scheme of the double elephant folio. He promised one hundred fascicules, or numbers, of five octavo size (one eighth of a large sheet of paper, or approximately 10 x 7 in. and 10 by 6 in.), hand colored plates each, for a total of five hundred illustrations, sixty-five more than are in the Birds of America. He planned to organize the book according to genera and species and to incorporate the texts describing the habits and localities of the birds, along with their anatomy and digestive organs (with occasional woodcut illustrations), from the Ornithological Biography, which accompanied the double elephant folio. Each num-ber would be wrapped in blue or gray paper covers and distributed to subscribers for $1 by Audubon and his network of agents on the first and fifteenth of each month. This new edition would "complete the Ornithology of our country," he wrote, "in the most perfect manner."
As with the double elephant folio, the "little work" was a family production, with thirty-year-old Victor Audubon managing all the family's business affairs from New York, twenty-seven-year-old John Woodhouse reducing the drawings with the camera lucida, and Audubon himself on the road selling subscriptions and contracting with agents in the manner that he had perfected while selling the Havell edition.
Audubon tried to convince Robert Havell, Jr., who had immigrated to America, to engrave and print this new book, but he declined. Audubon then turned to lithog-rapher John T. Bowen of Philadelphia, a recent immigrant from England who had caught his attention with the brilliantly col-ored lithographs in Thomas McKenney's and James Hall's History of the Indian Tribes of North America (Philadelphia and Baltimore, Ð1844). One of the most difficult problems Audubon faced in this new endeavor was copying the Birds of America in a reduced size, because photographic lenses that would automatically enlarge or reduce an image did not yet exist. He assigned this task to John Woodhouse, who used the Havell prints as models for the small drawings that he produced with the camera lucida. Sometimes, John traced a grid on his drawing paper to help him offset the distortions inherent in the camera lucida. (When John's wife died in 1840, Audubon took over production of the small drawings, ultimately doing half of them himself.)
The resulting outline drawings were given to Bowen's lithographic artists, who traced over them with a red or brown pencil, then placed the drawing face down on the lithographic stone and rubbed the back, transferring or offsetting the drawing to the stone. Next, the lithographic artist filled in the details to complete the drawing. The lithographs, which were printed two to a stone in black ink, were then be turned over to teams of colorists, usually young women, who probably worked in a manner similar to those in the Currier & Ives shop in New York. Sitting around long tables with a model, usually a colored copy of the print that Audubon or Victor had approved, sometimes one of Havell's prints or Audubon's original watercolor, in the middle of the table for all to see, each colorist applied only one color. The print would then be passed to the next person, who would apply a different color. Finally, it would be passed to the "finisher," who did what was necessary to complete the pictureÑusually only touch-ups and highlights. Currier & Ives sometimes cut stencils for use by unskilled labor when large numbers of prints were ordered, but Bowen felt that Audubon's pictures were too demanding for such treatment.
Yet there are some subtle differences that one can use to distinguish among some of these issues. For example, Bowen's craftsmen used block lettering on the titles of the earliest printings. Victor instructed them to abandon that lettering in favor of a much heavier and handsomer script, which they did in number five. The artist's and lithographer's names appear in block lettering on the first 150 plates and on plates 186 through 189 of the first edition; they are done in italic lettering on the remaining plates. In the second and subsequent editions, greenish-blue tint blocks are used in the backgrounds of almost all of the plates. The more complex landscapes are the exceptions.
Using the same process that he had worked out while selling the double elephant folio, Audubon took samples and began the search for subscribers. By now he was a master salesman, having honed his skills with a much more expensive book over a period of ten years, with several advantages: he was a famous man with a superb reputation, and he was selling a less expensive book -about 1/10th the cost of the double elephant folio. Still, the final cost of the publication would be $100, which would be approximately $1,500 in terms of mid-1990s dollars.
Audubon used his memberships in learned societies to advantage, securing letters of recommendation from friends and acquaintances. He altered his system a bit when he got to Baltimore, because he found that if local citizens would accompany him and help him sell, he enjoyed much greater success. Audubon also signed up agents to represent his works wherever he went, generally offering a ten to twenty percent commission. But perhaps the most important element in Audubon's success was his own personality.
Audubon was a distinctive man: one who met him at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia in 1839 estimated that he was a "man of fifty" (he was fifty-four at the time) and appropriately described him as having "the countenance of a bird" with "a projecting forehead, a sunken black eye, a parrot nose, and a long protruding chin, combined with an expression bold and eagle-like." A reviewer for the Southern Cabinet, perhaps John Bachman, wrote in the following year that "although the snows of age are gathering on his head, and here and there a furrow may be seen on his cheek, yet his eye has still the brightness of a hawk, he treads with the firm step of a young man, and his energies are unimpaired." Audubon was the sort of guest whom hostesses sought to ensure the success of their dinner parties and as a result, he rarely dined alone while on the road. Having overcome his earlier shyness, he was a raconteur of legendary abilities at the dinner table or in a saloon and a gadabout at his exhibitions. "It is true that my Name, and as Victor is pleased to say my 'Looks' May have some Influence in the Matter [of selling]," he conceded in 1840.
Audubon also knew how to get favorable coverage in the press. Again, using a procedure that he had developed in England, he cultivated influential editors and regularly gave review copies of each fascicle as it appeared to major publications such as the Philadelphia Saturday Courier and the New York Albion and frequently visited New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant. Victor saw to it that favorable articles in one newspaper were copied and mailed to other papers.
Even the terms by which Audubon described his books were a part of his sales scheme. The largest sheet of paper regularly available in England was called the elephant folio, approximately 23 x 14 inches. Audubon ordered the largest sheets that he could obtain for the Birds of America (approximately 39 x 26 in.) and called them "double elephant" folios. Likewise, his octavo edition (10 x 6 to 10 x 7 in.) would be slightly larger than the normal octavo, so he called it the "royal" octavo edition.
Audubon realized that the "little work" would be a success after his first selling trip. In less than three weeks, he sold ninety-six subscriptions in Salem, Boston, and New Bedford. Then, in Baltimore, he enjoyed unprecedented success, selling 157 subscriptions in less than a week-so many that he got ahead of the printers. "Alas! I am now out of numbers to deliver to my subscribers," he wrote from Baltimore in 1840.
Had the "Great Work" not been published, the royal octavo edition alone would have established Audubon's reputation in natural history art and scholarship, for it is surely one of the most beautiful books produced in pre-Civil War America. It was the most comprehensive accumulation of research available on American birds and, as the New York Albion editor explained, it was "fitted both in size and price for general circulation." Its usefulness may be seen in the fact that Henry David Thoreau, for example, paid a visit to the local library to identify a bird that he had seen in a friend's yard in Audubon's "hundred dollar edition."
Audubon tried to maintain the look of the Havell plates by simplifying the drawings and elegantly reproducing them on the large octavo page, backed, with few exceptions, with pristine white. He also gave a great deal of attention to the paper and typeface. Audubon probably sold more than 1,000 copies of the seven volumes of plates and text, and Audubon began to refer to the work as his "Salvator." The income from it permitted him to build a home on the Hudson River for his family. An anonymous critic for the American Journal of Science and Arts in New Haven summed up the public's feeling about Audubon: "To praise is no longer necessary; for... the public have given indubitable assurance that his labors have been appreciated,... and... it can hardly be said of him that he 'is not without honor save in his own land.'"
It is amazing that Audubon was able to produce his second new work, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, at the same time the octavo edition was being completed. With the Rev. John Bachman as author, Audubon began serious work on the project in 1841, with the first proofs issued from Bowen's press in 1842. John painted half of the figures for the project and, as usual, Victor maintained the business office, except, in this instance, he also assisted with the landscapes that made up the backgrounds of the plates.
Ultimately, Audubon painted half of the figures for the Quadrupeds between sales trips, even making his long-anticipated trip to the American West in 1843. A reporter for the Philadelphia Mercury left one of the finest descriptions of Audubon as he returned from his western trip:
As we turned into Chestnut street, from 4th on Saturday, coming from our "dinner," ... we encountered a finely built, muscular looking gentleman, whose appearance attracted general observation. We at once recognized him as Audubon, the celebrated Naturalist. Time has set his finger lightly on him since we saw him last. He was clothed in a white blanket hunting coat, and undressed otter skin cap; his beard was grizzled, and, with his moustache, had been suffered to grow very long. On his shoulder, Natty Bumpo-fashion, he carried his rifle, in a deerskin cover; and his whole appearance was characteristic of his character for wild enterprise and untiring energy. He went immediately to Sanderson's; and there he was quite the lion of the afternoon. He has brought many rare specimens of natural history and geology with him, accounts of which will doubtless enrich his next publication.
A writer for the Philadelphia Saturday Courier added, "Nothing could have gratified our feelings more than to have seen the old hero of the forest meet his loving and much loved family; and as we were denied that felicity, we close our hasty paragraph by wishing him and them all comfort and happiness, as the just rewards of a valued and devoted life, bestowed to the elaboration of the elevating and soul-lifting Science of Natural History." Audubon brought the "little work" to a conclusion in 1844, just as production on the Quadrupeds began. The first volume of the Quadrupeds was issued in late January 1845. He became senile and dropped out of the project in 1846, but Bachman and his sons carried on, publishing the second volume in 1848. Bachman did not finish the text until 1854. Audubon, meanwhile, had died in 1851.
Victor and John published an octavo edition of the Quadrupeds in three volumes in 1854. Then, they issued a second edition of the octavo Birds in 1856 and a third in 1859, which may be distinguished from the first by the addition of a tint plate in the background. After Victor's death, the family sold the copyright and lithographic stones to Roe Lockwood and Son, who produced editions in 1860, 1861, and 1865. George Lockwood printed editions in 1870, 1871, and 1889. The books were normally bound in seven volumes, except for the 1871 and 1889 issues, which were bound in eight. Now that the book is in the public domain, various publishers have issued editions. Indeed, the book has been in print, more or less continuously, ever since its publication and both the text and all 500 plates may now be found on the Internet.
Ron Tyler is a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and Director of the Texas State Historical Association. He is author of Audubon's Great National Work: The Royal Octavo Edition of the Birds of America (1993).