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John James Audubon (1785 - 1851)

Lot 1: AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851). The Birds of America; from Original Drawings. London: Published by the Author, 1827-1838.


June 14, 2018
New York, NY, US

More About this Item


AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851). The Birds of America; from Original Drawings. London: Published by the Author, 1827-1838.
The exceptional Duke of Portland set of Audubon's masterpiece – among the finest copies in private hands of this icon of American art, and the finest color-plate book ever produced.
Four volumes, double-elephant folio (c.977 x c.645mm). Complete with the engraved title-page in each volume and with 435 hand-colored copperplate etchings with aquatint and engraving, by William Home Lizars and Robert Havell Jr. after original life-size watercolor drawings by Audubon assisted by Joseph Mason [some botanical details], George Lehman [some backgrounds], Maria Martin [some botany and entomology], and his sons John and Victor Audubon; printed by Robert Havell Sr. and Robert Havell Jr. on J Whatman and J Whatman Turkey Mill paper watermarked 1827 to 1838 [see Appendix B for a list of the watermarks appearing throughout this set]. Bound in contemporary red morocco by royal bookbinder John Mackenzie (1788-c.1850), signed with his stamp, with blank flyleaves watermarked "J Whatman 1838".
[Complete with the text volumes:] AUDUBON, John James. Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America; accompanied by descriptions of the objects represented in the work entitled The Birds of America. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1831-1849 [i.e. 1839]. Five volumes, octavo (255 x 157mm). Bound in contemporary red morocco by Mackenzie, uniform with the plate volumes.

Condition of the plates
A superlative copy in excellent condition, the plates with fresh and vibrant original coloring. See Appendix B for condition details of the plates individually. In general, defects are minor and include: some minor tears and a very few small paper flaws neatly repaired; light offsetting from some plates onto the blank verso of the facing leaf; occasional light spotting, chiefly marginal; the largest plates with a few instances of the caption being partly obscured by the binding, shaved or cropped; occasional shallow creases; occasional finger soiling in some margins. The first five plates in volume I are on contemporary guards. A copy of an independent conservation report is available on request.

Variants in the text and plates
The title-page of volume I is in the first state [i.e. before the addition of a volume number and composed in 13 lines, before the addition of two lines listing Audubon's affiliation to various learned societies]; the first ten plates are all engraved by William Lizars alone [i.e. before retouching by Robert Havell], and all the remaining plates in this volume are also early states, with Arabic numbering when called for [these are numbered 11-14, XV, 16-100]. See Appendix A for a list of the captions in the first ten plates, and Appendix B for a list of the imprints throughout.

John Mackenzie (1788-c.1850) flourished in the second quarter of the 19th century, during which time he held the office of Bookbinder to both King George IV and King William IV. Mackenzie is noted for his use of richly gilt hard-grain morocco leather, most prominently on the natural history and color-plate books of preeminent noble collections, including in the Broxbourne and Grenville libraries.
Contemporary English red morocco by John Mackenzie, signed with his stamp on the front free endpaper of each plate volume, the blank flyleaves watermarked "J Whatman 1838"; the covers gilt with a roll-tooled outer border and central panel, and with a stylized scallop-shell tool at the outer corners of the central panel; the spines richly gilt in compartments and with green morocco lettering- and numbering pieces; marbled endpapers; board edges and turn-ins gilt; edges gilt (front hinges strengthened and some minor wear expertly repaired by James & Stuart Brockman Ltd; light wear at the extremities; faint darkening to the boards of some plate volumes). The plate volumes housed in individual red leather-backed clamshell cases, and the text volumes housed together in one matching case, all by J. & S. Brockman Ltd.

Edition size and rarity
Audubon's final list of subscribers to The Birds of America comprises 161 entries, although a somewhat larger number of complete sets was certainly produced. Bibliographers estimate that the edition is likely to have comprised 175 to 200 completed copies. Susanne Low, in her various updates to Fries' 1973 census, concludes that 120 complete copies are known to survive; of these, 107 are in institutions "such as universities, libraries, museums, athenaeums, societies, and the like". Of the thirteen sets in private collections, the Portland copy is undoubtedly among the very finest.


The Dukes of Portland (c.1839-2012; sold Christie's New York, 20 January 2012, to:) – Carl W. Knobloch, Jr., gifted to: – The Knobloch Family Foundation.

William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck (1768-1854), 4th Duke of Portland, probably purchased this set as a completed set soon after Audubon finished his project in 1838, and commissioned the binding from Mackenzie. Portland was the eldest son of Prime Minister William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland; he served in various positions in the governments of George Canning and Lord Goderich, including as Lord President of the Council.

All the evidence suggests that the 4th Duke was the original purchaser; the binding is strictly contemporary (the endpapers are watermarked 1838), with no trace of earlier ownership, and other books in the library known to have been bought by the 4th Duke underscore his serious interest in natural history. Each volume in this set bears the armorial bookplate of his descendant William, 6th Duke of Portland. According to the keepers at Welbeck Abbey, seat of the Dukes of Portland, there is no consistency in the "bookplating" of the library: many books certainly acquired by the 4th Duke have no earlier bookplate than that of the 6th Duke, and others do not have a bookplate at all. While it is possible that the set was acquired by the 5th Duke of Portland, after the 4th Duke died in 1854, or by the 6th Duke when he inherited the estate in 1879, this is unlikely: Audubon returned to America in September 1839 taking with him the remaining fifteen copies still with the engraver; these he sold by 1850, recording the names of the buyers (see Fries pp. 122-23).

William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland (1800-1879), was a notable eccentric who preferred his own company and excavated an extensive network of tunnels and rooms under the estate, including an underground library and ballroom. William John Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland (1857-1943), inherited the estate from his cousin in 1879. The 6th Duke was rather more sociable than his reclusive predecessor: he carried the imperial state crown during the coronation ceremony of King George VI. Earlier, in 1913, he hosted Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to England, and took him shooting on the estate. Portland records in his memoirs that "one of the loaders fell down. This caused both barrels of the gun he was carrying to be discharged, the shot passing within a few feet of the Archduke and myself. I have often wondered if the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death there and not at Sarajevo the following year" (Men, Women and Things, London: 1937).

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The Portland Audubon

June 14, 2018, 2:00 PM EST

New York, NY, US