Audubon's Birds of America

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Description

This resource, presented by the American Antiquarian Society, provides access to the color plates inside lithographer Julius Bien’s rare edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, published in 1860 in New York.  The Bien volume was produced entirely in America, unlike the famous 1838 engraved edition, which was printed in Scotland and England by W.H. Lizars and Robert Havell. Begun seven years after the death of John James Audubon, the Bien set was intended to provide a more affordable edition of the Birds of America, appropriate for educational institutions.  History would intervene, however, making the Bien edition more rare today than even the original Lizars/Havell set.

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The oversized Bien volume (often called a double elephant-folio) was a collaboration between John James Audubon’s son, John Woodhouse Audubon, Bien the printer, and the publishing firm of Roe, Lockwood & Co..  The project began in 1858 and the original plan was to reproduce all 400 birds from the 1838 engraved edition as chromolithographs.  The Audubon family still possessed the copper plates used on the original edition and these designs were transferred to lithographic stones by Bien.  In chromolithography, each color is added using a separate stone, one for black, one for red, one for brown and so on.  Bien had been using the process to print maps and prints since about 1853, and was a skilled lithographer.  Many images from the Audubon project required six or more colors to complete. The work was time consuming and resource heavy, with multiple large lithographic stones needed for each color, and multiple trips through the presses for each illustration.

The chromolithographed edition was offered by subscription, and was going to be issued in forty-five parts over several years.  The original price was about $500, half of the $1,000 cost of the original Lizars/Havell engraved edition. Unfortunately, the project was ill-timed.  Production started late in 1858, but by 1860, many Southern subscribers backed out over fears of the impending Civil War and printing stopped after only fifteen of the forty-five parts were complete. Then James Woodhouse became ill (he would die in 1862).  The project was never completed and only one volume containing 150 bird species on 105 sheets was produced. Audubon’s widow and Bien apparently offered the prints bound and unbound, trying to recoup losses.  Estimates on the number of bound volumes produced have been set by historians at between 75 and 100.  In 1976, historian Waldemar Fries claimed to have seen 49 bound sets of the Bien edition. In 2004, Susanne M. Low noted just seventeen bound sets remain complete, including the one now preserved at AAS.

The American Antiquarian Society’s copy of the Bien edition of Birds of America was the generous gift of Jay T. Last in honor of curator emerita Georgia B. Barnhill, in 2012.