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Birds of America

Books, Art
Date: early 19th century
Author: John James Audubon

Birds of America is one of the finest colour-plate works on ornithology ever produced, as well as one of the greatest works of book art. Using freshly killed specimens that were wired into lifelike positions, John James Audubon created the first illustrations of birds that looked as if they were alive.

The book is the result of a lifetime's work by a remarkable man. Audubon (1785–1851) was born in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a French plantation owner. He was educated in France and despatched to America to avoid joining Napoleon’s army. After dabbling in business, he eventually devoted himself almost entirely to zoological illustration, travelling the length and breadth of North America to do so.

Audubon's ambition was to publish an illustrated book of life-size North American birds, and in 1826 a trip to Great Britain marked the turning point of his career. He enjoyed great support from the scientific community and gathered a list of subscribers, including European royalty, enabling him to commission engravers.

The publication of the book cost the modern-day equivalent of roughly two and a half million dollars. Originally issued in 87 parts, each part consisted of five hand-coloured plates executed on paper measuring 75cm x 100cm. Audubon had originally aimed at a print run of 500, although he probably only completed less than 200 full sets of prints. Although its birth was slow and fraught with problems, Birds of America eventually made Audubon a wealthy man.

The Library's copy, which is one of 120 known copies, is bound in four double elephant folios containing 435 hand-coloured aquatint plates. Birds of America is accompanied by an index, Synopsis of birds of America (1839) and a five-volume text entitled Ornithological biography (1831-39).