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John James Audubon (1785 - 1851)



December 7, 2010
London, United Kingdom

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AUDUBON, JOHN JAMES. THE BIRDS OF AMERICA; FROM ORIGINAL DRAWINGS BY JOHN JAMES AUDUBON. LONDON : PUBLISHED BY THE AUTHOR, 1827-1838 First edition , 4 volumes, broadsheets (volume 1: 97.2 x 65.4cm. (38¼ x 25¾"); volume 2: 97.1 x 63.9cm. (38¼ x 25⅛"); volume 3: 97.2 x 63.8cm. (38¼ x 25⅛"); volume 4: 97.5 x 64.5cm. (38⅜ x 25⅜")), 4 engraved titles, 435 magnificent hand-coloured etched plates with line-engraving and aquatint, by W.H. Lizars of Edinburgh and by Robert Havell and Robert Havell, Jr. of London, after the original life-size watercolours by Audubon, watermarks J. Whatman or J. Whatman Turkey Mill 1827-1838 A plate-by-plate survey of the copy including watermarks and notes on all but the most minor defects is available from the London or New York Book Departments, and on Sothebys.com.


Henry Witham, Lartington, Co. Durham, subscriber number eleven as recorded in Audubon's Ornithological Biography, and noted in Audubon's ledger ("to July 1838 / Bound with locks"), volume I also bearing a presentation inscription from Witham's wife "From Eliza Witham with sincere affection. June the 24th, 1831"; thence by family descent to Francis Somerled Silvertop, sale, Christie's, 3 July 1951, lot 198 "a magnificent copy", £7,000, bought by William H. Robinson for Frederick, 2nd Lord Hesketh

Henry Witham (1799-1844) was a notable early paleobotanist, and the first Englishman to examine the internal structure of fossil plants. In 1833 he published his work on the subject, The Internal Structure of Fossil Vegetables found in the Carboniferous and Oolitic deposits of Great Britain. Witham had been born Henry Thomas Silvertop, but upon his marriage to the heiress Eliza Witham, he took her name and arms. Audubon's journal entry for 3 December 1826 tells of how the naturalist dined with Witham at Edinburgh, noting that "I determined in an instant that this gentleman was a gentleman indeed, quite wealthy, and polite and versed in all courteous ways. We dined, we drank coffee, we supped at 11. At 12 the ladies bid us good night. I wished and longed to retire, but it was impossible. Mr. Bridges talked much. We all talked much, for I believe the good wine of Mr. Witham had a most direct effect... And at half past one, after been dubbed a great philosopher and an extraordinary man, my health drank, &c., &c., I retired with Dr. Knox, but left Mr. B[ridges] and Mr. W[itham] at their whiskey toddy" (as quoted in Fries, pp.333-334).


A fine subscriber's copy of Audubon's "double elephant folio", intimately associated with the artist himself, and preserved in its original binding as noted in Audubon's own ledger.

Condition: a fine copy in excellent condition, with fresh, vibrant colours. Noted minor defects include: some finger-soiling; offsetting from preceding or following plates; occasional moderate surface bloom or bloom-spots; occasional light discolouration, foxing or spotting; the larger plates with a few instances of plate numbers, part numbers, and parts of captions being obscured by the binding, shaved or cropped; a few creases, some extending beyond the plate-mark; some minor tears, most repaired, chiefly marginal, a few extending to within the plate-mark; plates 52-69 with short tear at upper margin, initially 2.5cm., then diminishing; tiny chip at fore-edge of plates 87-95, neatly repaired; plates 201-212 with short tear at top inner margin, initially 1cm., then diminishing; plates 287-300 with short 2cm. tear repaired at inner lower margin, diminishing; plates 301-324 with short repaired tears or tear, affecting plate 301, otherwise marginal, diminishing; three or four tiny pin-holes, two in images; plate 202 torn entirely across and repaired; binding rubbed and rebacked, preserving original spines, some joints cracking

Binding: contemporary diced russia gilt by Alexander Banks, Edinburgh, with his ticket, the covers blocked in gilt with "Audubon's / Birds of America / Vol. I [-IV] / London ["Edinburgh" on volumes 3 and 4] / 1830–1834 [etc.]", surrounded by a blind tooled border with palm-frond motif, this surrounded by successive panelled foliate borders and fillets of varying width in gilt and blind, spines gilt in 7 compartments, each volume with two hinged locks, made by Barron or Cormack (this binding noted in Audubon's own ledger - see provenance note below - and illustrated in Fries following p.334)

Cabinet: the whole housed in a Victorian mahogany folio cabinet, second quarter of the nineteenth century, 5 sliding trays, the moroccan tooled leather inset top with cross banding, mounted on a plinth and recessed casters

Edition size and extant copies: Audubon included 161 names on his final published list of subscribers, but, while this is a strong indicator, it is not possible to give a totally accurate answer to the question of how many complete sets of the Birds of America were issued. Waldemar Fries's research, in his book The Double Elephant Folio, clearly shows that some people on the list could not have completed their subscription, and conversely that some people who are known to have had complete copies are not named. Also, at the end of printing in 1838, there were fifteen complete sets left over. Fries concludes that "the evidence suggests that the figure would certainly be less than 200, with the actual number somewhere between 175 and 200 copies" (p.140)

The last census of copies of The Birds of America was conducted by Suzanne M. Low, in her appendix to the updated 2006 edition of Fries's book. Low noted that "119 complete sets are known to exist in the world today. 107 are in institutions such as universities, libraries, museums, athenaeums, societies and the like. Twelve are in private hands".

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