Saturday, July 2, 2011

Audubon at McClung Museum

Scarlet Tanagers by John James Audubon

In 1826, rejected by publishers in this country, John James Audubon traveled to Great Britain hoping to find a more hospitable reception. He was 41 years old and virtually “penniless.” 

Hungry for natural history from the unknown wilderness of America, England welcomed the woodsman artist with open arms. 

Audubon soon met Robert Havell Jr. who agreed to print his “The Birds of America” in stages—five prints at a time—sold through subscriptions. 

Today it’s known as the Double Elephant Portfolio, because it was printed on the largest paper available measuring 28 by 39 inches, with each bird portrayed life-size. Ultimately the work contained 435 hand-colored prints engraved with aquatinting by Havell and hand-colored by his staff of colorists. It took eleven years to complete.

Towards the end of this massive undertaking, Audubon saw the need for a smaller, more affordable octavo edition. The term octavo refers to a printing process where 16 pages were printed on one large sheet of paper then folded three times and trimmed to ultimately yield eight leaves front and back. 

In Audubon’s day, typical octavo pages measured five by nine inches. But the enterprising artist, forever thinking big, wanted his to be 6.5 by 10.5 inches and perhaps because he had a flair for salesmanship, he called it the “Royal Octavo Edition.” He also chose the progressive new technique of hand-colored lithographic prints, a process that used a stone inside of a metal plate, because it was more durable and more pressings could be made.

For the rest of my sidebar piece that accompanies Louise Zepp's article about Audubon's Royal Octavo exhibit at McClung Museum on the UT campus read the July/August 2011 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.

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