Audubon at Pitt

A Brief History of Audubon’s Birds of America

John James Audubon (1785-1851) set out to paint every known (to him) North American bird in the early-nineteenth century. He eventually stopped at 435 paintings after he exhausted his personal resources. His original paintings of over one thousand birds (now owned by the New-York Historical Society), and the hand-colored plates that were subsequently engraved from them, are considered unique. All the birds were painted life-size, and many are shown interacting with other birds and wildlife, often in violent, predatory ways.

Audubon sold the engraved plates in a subscription series in England, Europe, and North America. Original subscribers received five plates at a time (one large bird, one medium bird, three small birds) over a period between 1827 and 1838, at a cost totaling about $1,000. It is thought that no more than 120 complete sets exist today. Each set consists of 435 individual plates that are based upon the original paintings. Each plate was engraved, printed, and hand colored, in large part thanks to Robert Havell of London. While William Lizars, of Edinburgh, engraved the first ten plates, Havell actually finished some of those.

To replicate the actual size of some of the larger birds, Audubon insisted that Havell engrave the plates on Whatman double elephant folio size mold-made paper (26 x 38 inches), the largest paper sheets available at the time (known even then as ”double elephant folio” size). Complete sets of the engraved, hand painted plates were frequently bound together by their individual owners, normally into four large volumes. Each of the volumes weighed sixty pounds or more. Today, ornithologists, art historians, rare book librarians, and collectors consider Audubon’s masterpiece the greatest work on North American ornithology ever published.

While Audubon was developing Birds of America, he was also working on a companion publication, namely, his Ornithological Biography. Originally published in Edinburgh in 1831, this five-volume set contains lively narratives that describe each bird and includes additional information, such as their habitat.

Indeed, his words frequently convey an image in the reader’s mind that accurately portrays what he has painted. Take, for example, the following sentence, part of his lengthy treatment on the passenger pigeon which, by the way, was painted while Audubon was in Pittsburgh. “Indeed, the tenderness and affection displayed by these birds towards their mates, are in the highest degree striking.” Does that not ring true from his depiction of the male and female passenger pigeons?

In 1869, The Life of John James Audubon was published thanks to Audubon's widow Lucy, a constant source of stability and support for her husband, who completed the manuscript after his death. Significant portions of the book are taken from Audubon’s own notes and records, and thereby provide keen insight to his work, travels, and personal life. These first-hand observations are essential reading for those interested in learning about Audubon.


The Donation of Audubon’s Birds of America

The daughters of William McCullough Darlington and Mary Carson Darlington, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, donated their family library to the University of Pittsburgh in 1918 and 1925 as a memorial to their father. Birds of America was part of the collection that became the Darlington Memorial Library, established in the University’s Cathedral of Learning.  According to one of Mr. Darlington's record books, he paid $400 to purchase the complete set in 1852.


The Preservation of Audubon’s Birds of America

In 2000, the head of Special Collections and the head of Preservation performed a plate-by-plate assessment of the Audubon collection.  They discovered a significant number of paper tears, lines, stains, cigar ash, and smudges in various plates throughout the set. After carefully handling each plate, they came to realize that the set required the professional attention of a conservator in order to both better preserve the plates while at the same time making them more accessible.

Accordingly the University Library System (ULS) contracted with the Etherington Conservation Center to undertake a major preservation project on the set. Twenty years earlier, Don Etherington performed conservation treatment on the Library of Congress’s set. In deciding to follow the Library of Congress’s preservation model, the University of Pittsburgh’s four volumes were disbound. Each plate was thoroughly examined, documented, and then treated based upon needs.  The entire process took five months to complete. The end results have vastly improved access to the original plates, safeguarded the plates for exhibition purposes, and eliminated all physical stress to the individual plates when they are viewed for research or exhibition purposes. The plates are now stored individually in specially designed folders and housed in shallow drawers in a secure steel case.


An Exhibition of Audubon’s Birds of America

In 2003, in celebration of the completion of the preservation work, the Director of the University Library System and the Director of the University Art Gallery agreed to mount a major exhibition of selected plates.  The exhibit took place in the University Art Gallery and consisted of sixty-two plates and other materials and objects, such as an original copper plate. The exhibit and surrounding programming were quite a success. Indeed, it was held over an extra six weeks to accommodate requests from the public and scholarly communities alike.

In addition, the ULS agreed that the Audubon plates should enjoy a continuous display for the University and general community. In order to do so, the ULS had a large exhibit case designed and manufactured for Hillman Library in which single plates are exhibited for two weeks in plate number order.


The Digitization of Audubon’s Birds of America

In 2006, the ULS embarked upon an ambitious project to digitize Mr. Darlington's library. The Darlington Digital Library encompasses a variety of formats, such as books, atlases, maps, broadsides, manuscripts, illustrations, etchings, and works of art. The ULS included the double elephant folios in its scope of work as undertaken by its Digital Research Library (DRL).

As part of a larger strategy to increase the capabilities of the DRL to perform high-quality in-house digitization, the ULS equipped the DRL with two large format scanning devices, capable of digitizing bound books as well as flat objects measuring up to 34 by 49 inches. In August of 2007, the DRL digitized all 435 plates on its A0 DigiBook SupraScan scanner. Each plate was digitized at 400 ppi in 24-bit color using a linear array 14000 pixel CCD. Stored as an uncompressed TIFF image, each master image comprises over 500 MB. For display online, the DRL created a derivative image from the master using the flash-based Zoomify viewing tool. This interface enables users to view portions of the plates at 100%.

To create the textual descriptions that accompany each plate, the DRL worked with Special Collections to provide these descriptive elements. It is these descriptive fields which are searchable. They include the name of the bird as designated by Audubon, the common name of the bird, the original engraved plate number, and keywords within the engraved plate legend, including the Latin scientific name of the bird. The plates can also be browsed in plate number order. It should be mentioned that the common names of the birds as indicated on this site are derived from the revised edition of Audubon’s Birds of America: The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio by John James Audubon and edited by Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson (Abbeville Press: NY, 1990). These common names are officially designated by the American Ornithological Union.

Since the Darlington library contains the Ornithological Biography, the DRL included this five-volume set in its digitization efforts. Further, for those desiring to read Audubon’s observations and notes on each bird, each plate image points to its respective description within the Ornithological Biography. Likewise, the digital version of the Ornithological Biography contains links to each high-resolution plate image as it is described in the publications.


Reproductions of Audubon's Birds of America

The University of Pittsburgh Library System (ULS) is pleased to provide print reproductions from its double elephant folio edition of the Birds of America. The reproductions are based on high-resolution digital images of the original work of art scanned by the DRL. The full reprint is reproduced at 100% of its original size (26 x 38 inches), including a one-inch border extending beyond the actual plate. Smaller paper sizes are also available. The fine art print is produced from the digital source using the giclée process (i.e., ink-jet printing).

The plate reproductions are printed on 285 gram smooth fine art paper for digital reproductions. The paper is made of 100% cotton linters and traditional matte finish designed for long-term fade-resistant reproductions. The mould-made fine art paper is free of acid and lignin, thus exhibiting high archival quality. Please note that these reproductions are not scuff-proof and should be treated as fine art.

The ULS has contracted with Warren Associates of Pittsburgh to print the plates. They will be shipped in heavy weight mailing tubes via commercial carrier. From receipt of payment to delivery, orders will take approximately four to six weeks to process. The price of each reproduction varies depending on paper size, but does include shipping and handling. For ordering information, please refer to the Audubon Reproduction Form.

Notecards are also available for sale depicting some of our favorite birds. Each set consists of twelve 5” x 7” blank notecards with matching white envelopes. Each set has one of each of the following birds: Wild Turkey (1), Carolina Parrot (26), Ruffed Grouse (41), Painted Finch (53), Passenger Pigeon (62), Pileated Woodpecker (111), Eastern Bluebird (113), Snowy Owl (121), Mallard Duck (221), Blue Crane or Heron (307), Roseate Spoonbill (321), and Scarlet Ibis (397). The notecards are also produced by Warren Associates and can be purchased by completing the Audubon Notecards Form,.

Proceeds from sales of the Audubon plate reproductions will help support the ongoing preservation work of the University Library System.