A Great National Work
By Ron Tyler
Author, “Audubon’s Great National Work: The Royal Octavo Edition of The Birds of America.”
Audubon Galleries Advisory Board Member
Even though the octavo edition was based extensively on the double elephant folio and the Ornithological Biography, overseeing and producing it still was a complex job that demanded organizational as well as administrative abilities. Chevalier oversaw production in Philadelphia, and Victor managed the business and family affairs from New York, but Audubon had the final word in all matters related to his work.
By the time the fifth number appeared, problems began to arise. The craftsmen who lettered the plates had not followed Audubon’s instructions precisely and had confused three bird names. Victor instructed them to change “Pigeon falcon” to “Pigeon Hawk,” “Sparrow falcon” to “Sparrow Hawk,” and “Gos Hawk” to “Goshawk,” and to abandon the block lettering they were using in favor of a heavier and much handsomer script. Unfortunately, the first printing had been distributed with the errors (and curiously Audubon seems to have changed “Sparrow Hawk” back to “Sparrow Falcon” and “Goshawk” back to “Gos Hawk” in later issues).
What could have been a devastating problem never materialized. Audubon had worried about getting his Birds copyrighted in the United States ever since he began the project and had printed volume one of the Ornithological Biography in Philadelphia soon after it appeared in Edinburgh to gain the protection of an American copyright. One of his reasons for rushing the octavo edition into print was to get the entire work under an American copyright. Then in March 1840, according to Henry Havell, Robert, Jr.’s brother, it now appeared that “some rascal” might beat Audubon to the task. Someone had apparently requested a bid from Henry for coloring copies of Audubon’s bird prints, which they intended to sell for $.37 per number, only a few pennies more than Audubon himself was paying! Worried, Victor urged his father to ask Congress to pass “a bill granting the exclusive right [to Birds of America] to us…for as long as a term of years as you think can be obtained.” But Audubon scoffed at the idea – the “story about another edition of our Work is perfect Nonsense. Where would the Rascal procure Subscribers…? Do not be Startled at a Scare Crow!” – and when Havell reported that he had not heard from the person again, Audubon told Victor to drop the matter.
More serious was Bowen’s threatened bankruptcy, which probably gave Audubon flashbacks of the colorers’ strike that had forced Lizars to give up production of the double elephant folio. Just at the time Audubon needed the printer to devote all his attention to production, creditors were calling on him for payment of his bills and threatening to force him out of business. The McKenney and Hall Indian portfolio, Bowen’s other big job, was the problem. The publishers had gone bankrupt, and Bowen had not been paid. He tried to publish it himself, so he could recoup some of his expenses but was forced to stop. Audubon and Victor spent a little time searching for another lithographer who might at least supplement Bowen’s production, if not replace him entirely should he fail. Victor reported that Henry Havell could color two hundred to three hundred of each number in New York if needed, but that when Bowen had approached him about the job, Havell had replied that he would work only for the Audubons. “I am sorry, very sorry that that foul Hy. Havell should have refused to Work for us through Bowen,” Audubon replied, apparently failing to understand why Havell would not want to work for someone on the verge of bankruptcy. Later that month, Audubon, Chevalier, and a friend at the Saturday Courier loaned Bowen money to help him out of his predicament, and Audubon concluded that his “Situation after all does not appear to me to be as desperate s we would have supposed from the tone of his letter.” Audubon finally concluded that “Bowen cannot…go through the Work as fast as we wish for the want of Colourers.”
The last problem was even more difficult. The Audubons had long known of the history of tuberculosis in the Bachman family, and Maria and Eliza were frail when John and Victor married them, but no one expected that it would strike so soon. Just as the success of the octavo edition was becoming apparent early in 1840, Maria’s health began to worsen, and John took her back to Charleston, hoping that the warmer climate would help her recover. The family feared that John’s production of the small drawings would suffer as a result, and their concerns were soon confirmed: Chevalier soon reported that some of the drawings that John had sent were so poorly composed that Bowen’s artists had to redraw them, prompting Victor to write John that he should be “careful, as the camera undoubtedly produces distortions & differences in size of each different bird on the same plate.” Bowen’s artists probably had to redraw the small outline drawings that the Audubons sent them on several occasions, for two of the extant drawings bear the signatures of other artists: the Mourning Ground Warbler (Bowen 101), signed by R. Trembley, who did more of the Audubon plates than anyone else, and the Black-Throated Wax Wing (Plate 33), which bears the signature of an artist who signed himself or herself “W.”
John’s production soon ceased altogether, even though the family continued the none-too-subtle suggestions that he keep up the work. Audubon wrote on March 9 that he had gotten a total of 171 subscriptions in Baltimore and 8 in Annapolis and that he was headed south in anticipation of gathering even more. On April 12 he included the news of fifty-three more subscribers from Washington. Victor added to John’s burden on April 23, reporting that Havell wanted payment of the $1,000 owed him and bluntly warned, “You see my dear John, therefore the necessity of energy, as it will not do for us to let the grass grow under our feet!”
Devastated by Maria’s illness, John was unresponsive. In June Victor warned that “Papa says you had better begin to draw again as soon as you can. I wish you were likely to be able to come to us before July is out, for I think every day you are away from home now, such a sacrifice.” A month later he admonished: “We shall want small drawings again in the month of October at latest,” and he continued that barrage the following week, reporting that Audubon was in Boston, “where he is getting 8 or 10 subscriptions a day!” As if that were not enough, Audubon prodded Victor at the end of July to “write to Johny to draw small Drawings. I wrote a long letter to him on Sunday from Nantucket.”
In August, John began to work again. He sent a painting of a deer for the quadrupeds project and his portrait of the Reverent Bachman for the family to examine and critique. He also mentioned that he had made a drawing of the “new Oriole” from the West Indies or Mexico. Victor responded that, “You can do as many small drawings as will occupy you, and I think you would find it a relief to have none to do for some time after your return home.” He also offered some encouragement from Chevalier, who had written that, “Whoever made these last small drawings, has my compl[i]ments, they are infinitely better drawn than those received previously, which bye the bye we had to redraw [e]ntirely for want of accuracy and proportion.” Knowing that Maria’s health continued to deteriorate, however, John answered despondently on September 2 that, I am going on very slowly with my little drawings and shall not busy myself for most truly I have no spirit for work.” Maria Bachman Audubon died on September 15, 1840, at the age of twenty-three.
It was after Maria’s death that the senior Audubon shouldered even more of the burden himself. No one has ever suggested that Audubon had a hand in producing the drawings for the octavo edition or that John did not do them all. But John was unable to keep up the pace, and Victor and Eliza, who suffered from the same malady that had felled her sister, soon left for Cuba in hopes that the tropical climate would speed Eliza’s recovery. Thus Audubon had to do the reductions himself or see the most successful project of his career come to a halt. His travel journal is silent for late September and October of 1840, which he spent at home, probably making many of the small drawings that Bowen needed to continue the work. The journal is also silent from late December 1840 to July 11, 1842, during which time the family purchased land on the Hudson River and began construction of “Minnie’s Land,” the family home. Audubon probably produced additional drawings during those months.
We know that the usually hardworking Audubon was working fourteen hours a day during this period, ostensibly on the paintings for the quadrupeds project but also probably on the octavo drawings from number 19 through number 68. His “Day Book” documents at least three instances in which he received payment of $7 per number, the same as he paid John, for making small drawings or “outlines”: $98 on June 12, 1841 (Plate 34), for numbers 19 through 32 (plates 91 through 160); $105 on January 14, 1842, for numbers 33 through 47 (plates 161 through 235); and $147 on December 12, for numbers 48 to 68 (plates 236 through 340), a total of fifty numbers, 250 drawings, or half of the number in the octavo edition. When Parke Godwin, who had met him in the offices of the New York Evening Post, visited “Minnie’s Land” in 1842, he saw “stuffed birds of every description of gay plumage” on “the mantelpiece; and exquisite drawings of field-mice, orioles, and wood-peckers,…scattered promiscuously in other parts of the room, across one end of which a long rude table was stretched to hold artist materials, scraps of drawing-paper, and immense folio volumes, filled with delicious paintings of birds taken in their native haunts.”
The change in style is apparent in the few extant original drawings now in the Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University. Wilson’s Flycatching-Warbler (Bowen 75), the Hemlock Warbler (Plate 35 and 36), and the Caerulean Wood-Warbler (Bowen 86), the first three of the remaining drawings, apparently were drawn by John or perhaps redrawn by R. Trembley, since they are quite similar to the Mourning Ground Warbler (Plate 32), which is signed “R. T.” in the lower left-hand corner. (Trembley drew most of the octavo edition birds on the stone, and Audubon must have been pleased with his work, for he rewarded him with a $25 bonus on New Year’s Day, 1841.) Wilson’s Flycatching-Warbler and the Hemlock Warbler are even marked with a grid pattern, which might have been part of the effort to correct the distortions of the camera lucida or a part of the process of drawing them on the stone.
By comparison, the Hermit Wood-Warbler (Plate 37), the first extant sketch in those numbers that are attributed to Audubon himself in the “Day Book,” is a more sophisticated drawing with a surer sense of the birds themselves. Other drawings that seem to be by Audubon, rather than by John or by one of Bowen’s artists, are the Red-Eyed Vireo (Bowen 243), the Red-Bellied Nuthatch (Bowen 248), the Canadian Woodpecker (Bowen 258), the Downy Woodpecker (Bowen 263), the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo (Bowen 275), only a fragment of which survives, the Welcome Partridge (Plate 40), the Willow Ptarmigan (Plates 38, 39), the Sora Rail (Plate 43), the Virginian Rail (Bowen 311), the Whooping Crane (Bowen 313), the Rocky Mountain Plover (Bowen 318), and the Missouri Meadow Lark (Bowen 489). The Black-Bellied Plover (Bowen 315) and Harris’ Finch (Bowen 484) are detailed and handsome drawings but lack the lifelike look that is so characteristic of Audubon’s work. The pencil and watercolor of Townsend’s Wood Warbler (Bowen 92) in the collection of the Audubon Memorial Museum in Henderson, Kentucky, is a much more finished work. By comparison, the Sandwich Tern (Bowen 431), the Ivory Gull (Plate 42), the Tufted Puffin (Bowen 462), the Curled-Crested Phaleris (Bowen 467), the Knobbed-Billed Phaleris (Bowen 468), the Slender-Billed Guillemot (Bowen 475), Bell’s Vireo (Bowen 485), the Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher (Bowen 490), the Least Tern (Bowen 491), and the Western Shore-Lark (Bowen 497) seem little more than carefully drawn outlines.
Audubon’s drawings are not his usual finished work, and he even referred to them in one instance as “small outlines,” but they are clearly better than the workmanlike efforts that characterize the other surviving drawings. The facial features of the Red-Eyed Vireo (Bowen 243) seem particularly well defined, for example. The Red-Bellied Nuthatch (Bowen 248) and the Downy Woodpecker (Bowen 263) are among the most detailed and lifelike drawings in the surviving group, again suggesting a much more talented hand than either John or Bowen’s copyists had shown. The calm little drawing of the Sora Rail (Plate 42) does little to call attention to itself – for the background is clearly unfinished – until you notice the female, at the left, looking directly at the viewer, an intimate gesture that only Audubon could have made convincing. The facial features of the Virginian Rail (Bowen 311) and the Whooping Crane (Bowen 313) are also distinctive.
The discovery of these drawings means that Audubon was even more intimately associated with the octavo edition than has been suggested, involving himself in the process, from conception to production of the drawings for the lithographers, and of the text for the printer; working with design and oversight of the book; and advertising and selling the finished product. This does not diminish anyone else’s contribution to the book as much as it does help us understand that this team effort was still firmly under the guiding genius of Audubon himself.
Victor, for example, did not forget the project while en route to Cuba with his ailing wife. He paused in Mobile and New Orleans to sell subscriptions and to urge his father to increase the print runs to 1,100 lithographs and 2,000 of the letterpress. Shortly after his arrival in Havana, he wrote that he had sold Count Fernandina a subscription. In fact, subscriptions were coming in so rapidly that Audubon asked Victor to stop selling in Cuba and not to sell any bound volumes unless he received $100 payment in advance, because he could not fill all the orders he had in the United States and did not want to take on any far-flung obligations that might prove difficult or costly. To keep ahead of demand, Audubon ordered Bowen to increase the number of lithographs to 1,000 with number 11 and to 1,250 with number 24, leading Victor, whose dealings with Bowen were still fresh in his mind, to “hope Bowen will be able to get out the 1250 copies of the little work well & regularly.”
Despite the fact that Eliza’s health steadily worsened, Victor kept up with the business as best he could. On February 23 he provided his assessment of the numbers, probably 23 and 24, that he had recently received. “We…on the whole think them very fair, altho’ I am inclined to believe the graining (in shading) is not as good as some of the previous numbers.” He suggested that if Bowen could work from the original paintings, rather than the Havell prints, “the work w[ould] be so much improved….The imitation of Havell’s aquatint at present is disagreeable to the eye, and will be a great drawback to the value of the work if not put a stop to – do think seriously of these suggestions.” When Eliza’s health did not improve, she and Victor returned to New York, where she died on May 25, 1841, at the age of twenty-two.
The frantic pace, in the meantime, had outstripped Bowen’s production capability, and printing stalled at number 25. He was fully occupied in December 1840 and January 1841, producing a second printing of number 10, a third printing of numbers 7, 8, and 9, and a fourth printing of numbers 5 and 6, and a fifth printing of numbers 1 through 4, all delivered in January 1841. In the midst of this rush, “the Stone on which were drawn The Marsh and Winter Wrens, broke after a few impressions and will put us off for several Days,” Audubon reported. “All hands are now engaged in the bringing forth Back Numbers from 1 to 24. We cannot expect to supply any of the new Subscribers (about 200) with Setts before the 9th or 10th of next month. The fact is that my Success at Boston &c and yours at the South came upon us almost, if not quite unexpectedly.” Later Audubon admitted, “It is a tremendous thing to bring up 24 Nos.” No wonder he impatiently snapped at Little and Brown in April 1841: “I doubt much if you are actually aware that we have at this moment in this city and at Philadelphia upwards of Seventy persons employed upon the present work and that all these…are to be paid regularly each Saturday evening, and that when we are out of temper it is not without cause.” By the time number 25 was finally delivered, it was forty-one days late.
These production complexities have led to several oddities in some copies of the Birds. The title legends vary throughout according to the style and hand, going from block letters in the earliest numbers to Audubon’s preference, italic script, in later numbers. Perhaps the block lettering, which was employed on the plates in the first three hundred copies of number 1, and the three incorrect titles in the first five hundred copies of number 5 can be used to date the earliest published copies of the plates for the octavo edition. Some prints are different from set to set, probably because a stone broke or was damaged and had to be redrawn, maybe by a different artist, or perhaps because Audubon changed his mind. An obvious example is the Black-shouldered Elanus (Bowen 16). The earlier version shows the two birds about 1/32 of an inch apart, in the same close relationship as in the Havell plate (352). A second state, which also appeared with the first edition text, shows the birds about 3/4 of an inch apart.
The uneven number of prints and letterpress produced led to other anomalies as well, such as the binding of the first printing of letterpress with later states of the lithographs. Audubon saved the extra letterpress sheets and bound them with the new lithographs to produce as many finished copies as he could, but making no attempt to match the first printing of the text with the first state of the lithographs. “In the Course of next week,” Audubon informed Victor in January 1841, “we expect to receive a parcel of Back Numbers to No 10 Inclusive, and…we will here be able to make up about 15 Setts which will be sent off in a crack to the nearest hungry mouths from which we may expect Immediate remittances.” As the publication drew to a close, however, the Audubons sometimes had trouble piecing together complete sets.” I hope you will not sell any more odd Nos of the little work,” Victor informed Audubon in May 1844, because “they may be the very ones we want. However any below No 56 we can spare.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture at one time owned a partial set of the Birds that contained the first edition letterpress and second state lithographs, which are distinguished by having tinted backgrounds and were not printed until 1856; so the Audubons apparently kept the extra letterpress on hand for years.
The increased pace and size of the orders put Bowen in financial difficulty again. Some have suggested that Audubon might have paid him slowly, as he had Havell, compounding the lithographer’s financial difficulties, but an examination of the “Day Book” suggests that the venture was profitable from the first and that Audubon paid promptly, if not according to the precise schedule that he and Bowen had agreed upon. The problem was the collapse of the McKenney and Hall project, which had reduced Bowen’s capitalization. Audubon’s orders were so large that Bowen could not carry the costs of paper and production until the lithographs were delivered, and now he apparently demanded payment from Audubon each week, claiming that he had already lost $800 on the job. He threatened to take his seventy lithographers and colorists off the task if Audubon did not comply. Audubon might have had less sympathy for Bowen if he had heard, as was rumored by the young George Burgess, that Bowen “had made money by his profession but lost all by speculating in stocks.”
Audubon also complained that Bowen could not keep up with the demand and that he had begun to simplify the backgrounds of some of the drawings, perhaps as a part of his effort to meet Audubon’s demanding schedule. “About a week ago Mr. Bowen got on his high horse and went so far as to write to me that he would give up the work! Telling us big stories about his losses &c &c and complained bitterly that every number of Johny’s drawings contained more work than the last,” Audubon recalled,
“I wrote a letter to Bowen with the will and wishes of Mamma and Johny in which I told him that we were ready to accept his resignation and asking him to appoint a day for settlement and actual payment of the balance! Bowen was at breakfast with us the very next morning but one. We received him as usual extremely kindly; he showed us the coloured proofs he had brought along and I refused them at once and for ever. He stared not a little, but on his hearing me tell him that in case I should give up his engagement, that I would send Johny to England that very day for the purpose of bringing over 50 workmen as good as himself, he mellowed down as an apple does in an oven, and ere he left us the same day did promise us never to complain again and ask as a particular favour that I would burn his letter, which however I told him I would retain for the “Sake of Old Lang Syne,” and I hope we will have no further trouble with him for a good while. The fact was simply this, that he had taken upon himself to cut up our little drawings at such a rate, that I was determined to check him, and I have done [so] effectively. Chevalier is properly delighted and so are we all. He has furnished Chevalier with back Nos up to 9 inclusive but it will be something like 2 months before he comes up to No. 24.”
Although Bowen probably did not take seriously Audubon’s threat to send John to England for colorists to finish the job, he did know that other lithographers were available. Perhaps he had heard that Audubon had again approached Henry Havell, who was continuing the family business in New York, and had received a bid that was $2 less per hundred lithographs than Bowen was charging.
Audubon finally made good on his threat to employ another lithographer in February, probably to give Bowen more time to catch up on the back numbers, but clearly a message to Bowen that the job could be done elsewhere. He employed George Endicott of New York to lithograph fifteen hundred copies of the fifteen images in numbers 28, 29, and 30, the most he would print of any of the illustrations, and contracted with J.W. Childs, also of New York, to color them. Nor did the work with Endicott go flawlessly, as a colored proof before lettering of the Common Mocking Bird (Plates 46, 47), now in the collection of the Hill Memorial Library, shows. Small differences between this image and the published version suggest that Audubon rejected the proof and had the image redrawn.
It is difficult to decide whether Audubon’s charges against Bowen were justified. Only a few of the drawings for the first twenty-four numbers, over which the dispute arose, are known to exist, and a comparison with the Havell engravings is not as meaningful as one might assume because there are considerable differences between the extant octavo drawings and the Havell plates. Audubon made a number of changes when he produced the small drawings and whatever differences there are between the Havell plates and the Bowen plates might have been his own doing. The drawings of Wilson’s Flycatching-Warbler (Bowen 75, Havell 124), the Hemlock Warbler (Bowen 83, Havell 134), and the Caerulean Wood-Warbler (Bowen 86, Havell 48) are similar to the Havell prints, except that the sprigs of turtlehead, mountain maple, and dahoon, respectively, have been much simplified in the reduced format. Bowen has simplified them even further in his prints, suggesting that there might have been some substance to Audubon’s complaints. But if the drawings did not exist, and one were comparing the Havell plates with the Bowen plates, it would be easy to conclude that Bowen had made substantial changes. The Hermit Wood-Warbler (Bowen 93), the other extant drawing for these early images, is quite different from the Havell plate (Havell 395), which contains three species and six different birds. Audubon gave each species a plate to itself in the octavo edition; the other four birds from the Havell plate are illustrated as Audubon’s Wood-Warbler (Bowen 77) and Black-throated Grey Wood Warbler (Bowen 94). There are many other examples of Bowen plates that feature simplified or deleted backgrounds when compared to the Havell plates – for example, the Red-tailed Buzzard (Bowen 7, Havell 51), the Golden Eagle (Bowen 12, Havell 181), the White-Headed Sea Eagle, or Bald Eagle (Bowen 14, Havell 31), and the Gos Hawk (Bowen 23, Havell 141), to list only a few; but the octavo drawings for these plates are not known to exist.
On the other hand, Bowen, like Havell, assisted Audubon with a number of the drawings. The landscape background in the print of the Whooping Crane (Bowen 313), for example, is much more elaborate than in the drawing. At the bottom of the drawing of the Welcome Partridge (Plates 40, 41), Victor wrote: “Put a Landscape to these plates of Partridges.” And Bowen obliged with a handsome little habitat complete with a fallen tree trunk.
Bowen, of course, had compelling reasons for remaining in Audubon’s employ. The miniature birds were among the finest natural history illustrations produced in this country – surely the best reproductions of Audubon’s paintings other than the original double elephant folio up to that moment. Bowen was proud of his contribution to such a prestigious project and exhibited the prints as examples of his work. Shortly after the octavo edition was under way, Audubon began work on The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, an even more ambitious project, and Bowen wanted that job, too.
The royal octavo edition of the Birds became the most popular natural history book in America during a period of severe economic distress. The panics of 1837 and 1839 initiated a depression, from which the nation did not emerge until the mid-1840s. A glance at Audubon’s account books, and the different cash accounts that he maintained in New York and Philadelphia, reminds one of the unstable economic conditions that marked these decades. Audubon kept money in several different banks, not only for the convenience of collecting and paying bills and supporting family and employees in both cities, but also to prevent being wiped out if one of them collapsed. “Think of the [$2,000] We have as dead in Kentucky Bank Stock,” he advised Victor at one point. To complicate the matter, Audubon had trouble with Chevalier, who apparently was unable to keep up with the project. One of the first hints of difficulty arose when Victor warned Audubon, in March 1840, “Do not mention these matters to C[hevalie]r when you write to him.” Toward the end of the year, as Victor was en route to Cuba, he commented that John would have difficulty balancing Chevalier’s books, suggesting that Audubon had sent John to Philadelphia to get to the source of the problem. The following January, Audubon advised Victor that, in addition to Bowen’s problems with McKenney and Hall, “the Bank of the U.S. is very low at present and in all prob[ability] will have to wind up.”
Audubon’s subscriber base was also threatened by the unsteady economy. “We have had great havoc among the banks of Phil[adelphia,] Baltimore and Virginia, all of whom almost Simultaneously suspended species payments,” he advised Victor in February. “I am also afraid that all those rascally banks’ difficulties will affect our procuring new Subscribers in the Spring when I contemplated making a great Sweep at New York, Albany, Troy, Rochelle, Quebec, &c &c &c….” When Victor returned from Cuba, he promptly went to Philadelphia to see if he could resolve any remaining questions with Chevalier. “Brother and Mr. Chevalier are now hard at the books,” John wrote in June. Victor added in a postscript: “It will be a matter of time & difficulty to close with J.B.C. even if necessary.” When Audubon visited Chevalier in February 1842, he found him “not a little frightened at the present aspect of affairs [and] concluded to stop the extra printing of letterpress beyond that wanted for the Nos called for at present or supposed to be wanted.” They also lowered the price of binding each number in an effort to encourage new subscribers to purchase the back issues, thereby selling the “immense pile” of letterpress that they had in stock. Shortly thereafter, Chevalier severed his ties with the Audubons and sailed for France to join his family. Victor advised in July 1843, “I have some trouble with our money matters, but hope to get along tolerably.” As Audubon tried to bring the project to a close, he needed to collect from subscribers who had not yet paid and to find out how many copies his agents had, particularly the large ones like Little and Brown, who handled quite a few copies. Victor wrote in July 1844 that “Little & Brown have 474 Nos of the small work on hand which brings us in their debt considerably!”
As volume 5 drew to a close, John had returned to his task of drawing the little birds, while the developing Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America demanded more of Audubon’s time. “I am now as anxious about the publication of the Quadrupeds as I ever was in the procuring of our Birds – indeed my present interest in Zoology is altogether bent toward the completion of this department of natural science,” Audubon had written to the young Spencer F. Baird, who would later serve as assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in July 1841. His 1843 trip up the Missouri River to Fort Union was for the purpose of gathering further species for the Quadrupeds, but he found “no less than 14 New Species of Birds, perhaps a few more,” he wrote Bachman upon his return. “The variety of Quadrupeds is small in the Country we visited, and I fear that I have not more than 3 or 4 New ones.” Audubon busied himself with paintings for the Quadrupeds, but he also apparently redrew some of his new bird paintings for inclusion in the “little work.” Among the extant drawings that seem certain to be his work is the Missouri Meadow Lark (Plate 50).
The miniature edition of Birds of America was complete by 1844. It corrects several errors that Audubon had made in the double elephant folio, such as those that he addressed through the production of the thirteen composite plates. It contains seven species of birds that were described in the Ornithological Biography and listed in the Synopsis but not illustrated in the double elephant folio and seventeen birds that were neither illustrated nor described in the earlier works. Volume seven, for example, includes a lithograph of the Texan Turtle Dove (Bowen 496), the only bird included in Audubon’s work that is directly traceable to a Texas specimen. Audubon reported that the skin had been supplied to him by J.G. Bell, who received it from an unnamed correspondent in Texas.
Some of the octavo plates show whimsical additions, such as the small sailboat in the lower left-hand corner of the picture of the bald eagle (Bowen 13, Havell 11), an addition that Audubon had made to at least one oil painting of the eagle before he began the octavo edition. A number of Havell plates were redrawn to show only one bird or species to a plate. Plate 434, illustrating the little tyrant flycatcher, the blue mountain warbler, the short-legged peweee, the small-headed flycatcher, Bartram’s vireo, and the Rocky Mountain flycatcher, for example, was divided into seven Bowen prints: the Rocky Mountain Flycatcher (Bowen 60), the Short-legged Pewit Flycatcher (Bowen 61), the Least Pewee Flycatcher (Bowen 66), the Small-headed Flycatcher (Bowen 67), the Blue Mountain Warbler (Bowen 98), Bartram’s Vireo or Greenlet (Bowen 242), and the Least Flycatcher (Bowen 491). Havell plate 417 (Plate 44) was similarly divided into six octavo plates (Bowen 258, 259 [Plate 45], 260, 261, 265, and 269); plate 416 was divided into five octavo plates (Bowen 262, 266, 270, 272, and 274); and plates 362, 394, 400, 402, 424, and 432 were divided into four each (228, 230, 232, and 235; 154, 182, 193, and 194; 153, 157, 178, and 183; 467, 468, 470, and 471; 187, 197, 198, and 207; and 29, 30, 31, and 38). Some of the other plates were divided into two or three Bowen prints. In other instances, such as the Goshawk (Havell 141), the plate was redrawn to correct some of Havell’s compositional errors and bad judgments. John presented a simplified drawing for the octavo edition that looked more like Audubon’s pasted-up original than Havell’s engraving (Bowen 23; Goshawk, Original Painting 17).
Virtually all of the crowded or complex Havell prints have been simplified in the octavo version so as to preserve the aesthetic appearance that Audubon valued, but because both Bowen and the Audubons themselves hurried to finish the task, some of the octavo plates may have been simplified beyond what Audubon wanted. Early in the project Bowen complained that the drawings were too complex, and Audubon threatened to take the job elsewhere if Bowen did not stop editing them himself. The Sparrow Falcon (Havell 142, Bowen 22), in which several leaves and branches have been cut, and the American Redstart (Havell 40, Bowen 68), in which many of the leaves have been omitted, may be examples of images that Bowen simplified himself. The landscapes in the backgrounds of the octavo drawings of the Canadian Woodpecker (Bowen 258), the Common Tern (Bowen 433), the Ivory Gull (Bowen 445), and Harris’ Finch (Bowen 484), and the hints of shrubs in the background of the Willow Ptarmigan (Bowen 299), do not appear in the prints. Also, the leaves and flowers in the drawings of the Downy Woodpecker (Bowen 263) and the fragment of the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo (Bowen 275) have been reduced in the print. Surely Audubon himself cut the squirrel out of the illustration of the Barred Owl (Havell 46, Bowen 36). Some of the more complicated landscapes, such as Charleston in the background of the Long-Billed Curlew (Havell 231) and the swamps behind the Roseate Spoonbill (Havell 321), were simplified, probably because of the impossibility of getting as much into the reduction (Bowen 355 and 362). As a result, these landscapes do not seem as integral a part of the picture in the octavo edition as they do in the folio.
The text of the octavo Birds is a reprint of most of Audubon’s Ornithological Biography, with the sections that he called “delineations of American scenery and manners” omitted. Because the total number of subscribers on Audubon’s published list is over 1,200, several authors have estimated the number of complete copies printed and bound of the first octavo edition at about 1,200. But, as with the double elephant folio, not all those who subscribed completed their subscriptions. Audubon had reduced the print run on the plates to 1,150 beginning with number 51 and to 1,050 beginning with number 57, so there could not have been 1,200 subscribers at the finish, and he could not have produced 1,200 bound copies of the first edition without a reprint of the plates that is not included in his “Day Book.” (He apparently had sufficient copies of the text.) The total number of subscribers might have been nearer 1,000 or 1,050. The hundred numbers were issued over a period of almost five years, beginning in 1839 and concluding in 1844. (See Table 2.)
It has often been said that Audubon’s real popularity did not begin until the octavo edition of the Birds was published. While that is probably not true, he did greatly expand his audience with the new edition, for it was published at the height of Americans’ frenzy for “national” works of art and literature. Audubon believed that his subscribers consisted of men and women of “liberality” and “taste.” It goes without saying that they must also have been wealthy. Boston Brahmins and Louisiana planters bought his books, as did learned societies, libraries, the old rich, and the new mercantile class. On his subscription list were senators and congressmen, cabinet members, military officers, lawyers, doctors, editors, merchants, and artists. Naturalists John Cassin and Spencer F. Baird subscribed, as did New Orleans merchant Germain Musson, the grandfather of French artist Edgar Degas, and a Mrs. Bruce, who ran a boardinghouse on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Crescent City. Many of these subscribers also patronized worthy causes such as public charities and churches, and some saw Audubon’s books – indeed, Audubon himself – in this same category, because his work was science and natural history, or because it was a great national, i.e., American, work. The Saturday Courier called it “an honor to the American nation,” the Albion, a “national and instructing work.” “In times like the present,” the editor concluded, “this is highly honourable to parties who thus munificently encourage science.”
Audubon had designed his publications to appeal both to the scientifically minded and to those who admired the fine arts. These apparently divergent fields were much more complementary in pre-Civil War America than today. A number of the subscribers, such as Robert Gilmor, Jr., of Baltimore, patronized American artists, while others served on the boards of arts and natural history organizations, and three of them were artists themselves (including Robert Havell, Jr., who purchased two subscriptions). Such people joined the societies, contributed money, and on occasion, researched and published books themselves. Most of Audubon’s subscribers accumulated libraries.
Although Bachman urged him to ransack the countryside, most of his customers were in the five largest cities in the country: New York City (142, or 11.5 percent), Boston (207, or 16.7 percent), Philadelphia (74, or 5.9 percent), Baltimore (168, or 13.5 percent), and New Orleans (61, or 4.9 percent). Charleston, while not as large as New Orleans, was a hotbed of naturalists and provided Audubon with 69 subscriptions (5.6 percent), followed by Washington, D.C., and New Bedford (49 each, or 3.9 percent) and Richmond (41, or 3.3 percent). Massachusetts accounted for almost 30 percent (362) of his subscriptions, Maryland and New York had more than 14 percent (181 and 176, respectively) each, Pennsylvania almost 9 percent (108), and South Carolina a little more than 7 percent (90). Audubon received nineteen subscriptions (.015 percent) from Canada, twelve (.009 percent) from England, and two (.002 percent each from China and Cuba.
This trend toward the coastal states and cities follows other economic trends in pre-Civil War America, when the easiest method of transportation, both for Audubon on his sales trips and for later fulfillment of his orders, was by water. It is also predictable when one considers the occupations of those who purchased the octavo Birds. A comparison between New York City and New Orleans suggests that the new merchant and middle classes strongly supported Audubon in both the North and the South. (See Table 4.) New York City provided a total of 142 subscriptions, New Orleans, 61. A total of fifty-four names (38 percent) in New York and sixteen (26 percent) in New Orleans remain unidentified, but of those who can be identified, the largest category of purchasers in both cities was merchants, thirty-two (23 percent) in New York and fifteen (25 percent) in New Orleans, for a total of forty-seven (23 percent) in both cities. They were primarily commission merchants in New Orleans, where the cotton trade dominated; there was a wider spread in New York, including dry goods and other retail merchants. The next largest category in New York was lawyers (seventeen, or 12 percent); in New Orleans it was planters (eight, or 13 percent). Five lawyers (8 percent) subscribed in New Orleans. The third largest categories in New York were bankers and doctors (six each, or 4 percent), while doctors and government employees followed in New Orleans (three each, or 5 percent). Three artists (2 percent) and a taxidermist (less than 1 percent) subscribed in New York. In the capital of Washington, D.C., on the other hand, out of a total of forty-nine subscribers, at least twenty-two (45 percent) were associated with the military, four (8 percent) were employed by the government, two (4 percent) were in the Cabinet, and one (2 percent) was a U.S. senator. Three doctors (6 percent) and one editor (2 percent) are also identifiable in Washington, but no merchants.
While it is difficult to be sure how much money Audubon earned, he might have made as much from the octavo edition as from the double elephant folio but in less than half the time. He fulfilled his promise of one hundred fascicules of five colored prints each for $100. He also offered the set of seven volumes bound in half or full morocco leather for $115 and $120. He generally paid his agents a 10 to 20 percent commission, so he could expect to receive from $.80 to $.90 from the sale of each number, more if he himself sold it. If his final expenses totaled an estimated $.60 to $.65 per number, he could expect to receive approximately $.25 to $.35 profit per number. If he sold all of the 1,050 sets printed, he would have had a potential profit of $25 to $35 per set (100 numbers x $.25 or $.35 per number). Since he sold 85 percent of the sets himself, his profit could have been as much as $35,980 ($35 x 896 sets = $31,360; to this, add $30 [average income on agent’s sales] x 154 sets = $4,620), the equivalent of $563,555 in 1991. He would also have received some income from subscribers who did not complete their subscription; he printed 1,500 copies of the lithographs for numbers 28 through 30, for example, and might well have sold more than 1,050 copies of them. Furthermore, profit from the octavo edition would have been spread over a four- to five-year period rather than an eleven-year period, as it was with the double elephant folio.
Reviews of the work were uniformly good. From England the knowledgeable William Yarrell, author of A History of British Fishes and A History of British Birds, wrote of the small birds that “I like them much – as I could not afford to have the large work I make myself content with the small one….I am quite of your opinion that there would be some sale for it here – if it was advertised and made known.” A German visitor praised Bowen for the “beautiful lithographic work and…brilliant lifelike coloring.” The Saturday Courier quoted a Professor Wilson, “one of the ripest scholars of Europe,” as saying that Audubon’s literary style “is the most natural, flowing, easy, graceful, and, at the same time, touching, terse and truly eloquent, of any with which I am acquainted. I wish I could write with so much naivete, expression, freedom, and perfect picturing of the object to be presented to the mind’s eye. But that style is, in part at least, but the inspirings of God.” The Albion concluded that his text “breathes poetry in every line.”
Several months later, the Saturday Courier continued its coverage of Audubon’s work, predicting that his “Birds of America, and…Quadrupeds of America will be great National Works, which will live to glorify his talents and perseverance so long as a love of Natural history shall endure.” Poets praised his accomplishments in the press, and his bird stories were excerpted in the Albion, Godey’s, Brother Jonathan, Southern Cabinet, and Parley’s Magazine, among others. Some, like the Albion, Arthur’s Magazine, and A.A. Gould in A Naturalist’s Library (Boston, 1849), published engraved adaptations of several of his images. Even if it is true that few Americans would have seen a folio or an octavo plate, most of them had read about the “celebrated naturalist” and many would even have read one of his stories. The fullness of Audubon’s genius was at last brought home for the American public to enjoy. And in so doing he had ensured his family’s financial security for the remainder of his life and much of his sons’ and his wife’s.