On 16 June 1838, John James Audubon's engraver, Robert Havell, Jr., pulled the final Double-Elephant Folio print, #435, the Columbian Water Ouzel, to complete Audubon's monumental publication, The Birds of America. The work took almost twelve years to finish due to the time consuming labor of etching the image onto copper plates, printing and then hand coloring each print. Also, Audubon still needed to collect new bird species over this period to reach his goal of illustrating all American birds.
As Audubon's knowledge of ornithology grew, he realized that he had misidentifžed some birds as new species which were actually only different plumages of known species. Often Audubon acquired the immature male or the female of the species after the adult male image had been printed and published. He was forced to add these different plumages to various later prints which often illustrated multiple birds. Audubon wished, for his own pleasure, to combine these various states of a species onto the same print, so that the adult male, female and immature male (if that plumage differed) could be depicted on a single print. The resulting print is termed an Audubon Composite.
Havell was instructed to create six sets of thirteen different composite prints for a total of seventy-eight prints. Audubon bound one composite set into his personal copy of The Birds of America and gave two of his closest friends , Dr. Benjamin Phillips of London and Mr. Edward Harris of New Jersey, each a set which they bound into their B.O.A. copies.
To create a composite print Havell first pulled a print from the primary copper plate, the plate with the adult male (Here plate 388, Bullock's Oriole). He then took the secondary copper plate bearing the female and/or immature male (Here plate 433) and after blocking out the extraneous birds and backgrounds on that plate, inked only the birds to be added to the primary print. He
then printed the inked images onto the previously pulled primary print sheet, thus creating one print containing all the various plumages. Often backgrounds on the primary plate also had to be eliminated to provide space to position the secondary plate birds in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Some composite prints required a third impression to separate, as in this case, birds too close together, resulting in three visible plate marks on the composite print. Our Bullock's Oriole Composite exhibits these three plate marks. Sometimes Havell had to paint a branch on the finished print to connect the printed branch perches of the added birds, thus composite plates can contain his original artwork and no two of these prints would be exactly the same.
The Composite is the rarest of all Audubon prints. There were only seventy-eight produced, of which forty-eight are owned by institutions. No one knows exactly how many of the remaining thirty have survived, making our composite very rare. In contrast, we know that one-hundred and nineteen complete bound sets of the four-hundred thirty-five prints making up The Birds of America exist today, giving a total of over fifty-one thousand extant bound prints. To this number must be added the number of loose prints existing for each image, often estimated at no more and often less than fifty, resulting in an about twenty-one thousand loose prints in various condition states, and making a grand total of around seventy-two thousand extant Audubon prints.
Our Composite exhibits an interesting provenance, bearing on its verso, the red library stamp of the New York Society Library. Waldemar Fries in his landmark work The Double-Elephant Folio omits our print from his list of the three composites contained in the Society Library copy.
Our Audubon Composite print, The Bullock's Oriole, plate number 388, is in excellent condition with bright original color. It bears the J. Whatman 1838 watermark and measures 26 1/4 x 39 3/8 inches.
Antique Nature Prints is very pleased to announce that our Audubon Composite is now in the permanent collection of The Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, (www.starkmuseum.org)
To read the Maine Antique Digest story about this Audubon composite and its sale please click here
The Stark Museum's collection has the distinction of being the repository of Audubon's personal copy of the Birds of America. Audubon's personal copy contains all the thirteen composite plates, is arranged systematically (instead of numerically), being bound according to Audubon's Synopsis of the Birds of North America in five volumes.
- The Composite Plates of Audubon's Birds of America
by Jeff Holt and Albert Filemyr
- Audubon Art Prints
by Bill Steiner
- The Double Eleghant Folio
by Waldemar Fries
- A Guide to Audubon's Birds of America
by Susanne Low