26 March 2013

John James Audubon and the Australian connection

The process of printing engravings via copperplate, with its capacity for reproducing fine line and detail, was largely superseded in books by the development of lithography, a cheaper and therefore attractive option for American publishers. So to achieve the stunning results he wanted, bird artist John James Audubon (1785–1851) had to travel many times back and forward across the Atlantic to find a suitable British publisher. In the end, Audubon selected engravers William Lizars in Edinburgh and, later, Robert Havell Jr in London for his treasures.

The long, exhausting project was worth it. Bronwyn Waterson called Audubon’s book, The Birds of America (published in parts between 1827 and 1838), the most beautiful book ever published. Since only 120 copies are known to have survived till today, it may not surprise book lovers that one copy sold at a Sotheby's auction in London in 2010 for £7.3 million or $US 11.5 million. This was apparently a record for a printed book sold at auction. The 435 hand-coloured engravings, bound in four volumes, must have been worth every penny. 

Perhaps it was the height of this book, 1+ metre, that grabbed the buyers’ attention. But perhaps the height was itself problematic. I was thinking that even if I could have afforded the £7.3 million, it would be difficult to find a perfect location in the house to place such a large object.

Audubon's masterpiece, The Birds of America, is a very large book

So if The Birds of America is as rare and as famous as suggested, how did the State Library of Victoria obtain a copy? LaTrobe Journal had lots to say about a certain William Stallard. The state librarian A.B Foxcroft at the time left a handwritten note (dated 1871) to say that Mr William Stallard, the Principal of Western College Geelong, offered the Birds of America to the Melbourne Public Library for £200. It would cost twice that to replace, Mr Stallard had written. But in a curt memo, the President of the Trustees, the infamous "hanging judge" Sir Redmond Barry, noted that £150 was too much. The book was eventually obtained for a very modest £100. A further £16 was spent on restoring the bindings on three of the four volumes.

There is no evidence for when or how Stallard acquired the Birds of America, presumably in England rather than in a British colony. Perhaps the purchase of the Birds was the product of another, more affluent time, before the hardship of colonial life dragged William Stallard into the pits of despair. Apparently Stallard had been dismissed from his prestigious employment for excessive drinking. He eventually took his life by drowning in the Yarra River. What a sad end to a promising life, but how fortunate for the State Library.

The book is on display at the State Library of Victoria as part of its 2013 exhib­ition, Mirror of the World. Using many of the rare, beautiful and historically significant books held in the Library's collections, the exhibition is exploring five important themes:
  1. 'Books and ideas', outlining the early history of books and printing
  2. 'The book and the imagination', looking at the way books and texts are imaginatively created
  3. 'Exploring the world', investigating how books have been used to explore and document the world including, its landscape, topography, inhabitants, flora and fauna
  4. 'Art and nature', looking at how botanical illustrations unite the scientific and artistic worlds
  5. 'The artist and the book', highlighting the art of the book and the role of the artist.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It does not surprise me that great works of natural history have ended up in Australia, since the country itself is a natural magnet for naturalists.

Yale's Beinecke Library is lucky to have two copies of Birds of America on display, which are sometimes opened to the the same page to illustrated the variations in the hand coloring and finishing. I also believe that the Peabody Museum there has some of the original Audubon copper plates.
--Road to Parnassus

Andrew said...

Sounds like a must see. We are so fortunate to have it in our possession.

P. M. Doolan said...

hi Hels,

A copy was auctioned last year at Christies in New York for just under 8 million dollars.

Mott said...

I remember John Gould and his birds better. When I was in grade 6, the students were encouraged to join The Gould League.

Hels said...


This turned out to be a more fascinating post than I had expected. Unless Yale's Beinecke Library bought its treasures on the open market, their two Audubon books must have arrived via a generous benefactor or grateful university. Wouldn't you love to know the story?

Hels said...


I used to things were pre-ordained or fated. Now I just think it is dumb luck.

Nonetheless, how clever of the State Library of Victory to recognise a treasure when they see one. And to look after it beautifully.

Hels said...


compared with the Sotheby's auction in London in 2010 ($US 11.5 million), the Christie's in New York in 2012 sounds relatively cheap. But there may have been some differences in condition.. or provenance. Or the market softened in the last three years.

Nonetheless, the Christie's book still cost more than all the houses in my street put together.

Hels said...


John Gould (1804–1881) published fine monographs on birds, in conjunction with some important artsts. Australia’s Gould League was, as you say, named after him.

So who was more important? JJ Audubon (1785-1851) was just ahead of John Gould time-wise and perhaps a more exotic painter, but only Gould was professionally associated with naturalists. Thus it was Gould who was important to Charles Darwin's ideas in Origin of Species.

Parnassus said...

Hello again, I found the following on the Beinecke's website. Francis Patrick Garvin is the same person who gave Yale the famous Garvan collections of furniture, silver, etc.:

"One (Birds of America) came in 1934 as a bequest from Henry Farnam, 1871 Hon., the other, deposited by the Yale University Art Gallery, was given by Francis Patrick Garvan, 1897.

The great naturalist is also represented in the Beinecke by a collection of family papers...Other correspondents include William Lizars and Robert Havell, Jr., who engraved the plates of Birds of America after Audubon's drawings."

Hels said...


I am liking Francis Garvan :) and I like the idea that family papers are included in the Yale collection. How cool that Lizar and Havell were included.