Robert Havell Jr. (1793–1878) after John James Audubon (1785–1851)
The Birds of America, four volumes (1827–38)
Hand-colored etching with aquatint and engraving
Gift of Mrs. [Patricia] Harvey Breit and Mrs. Gratia R. Laiser in memory of their mother,
Gratia Houghton Rinehart, 1954*
Approximately 120 complete copies of The Birds of America are extant today in collections around the world. G. Kirkpatrick, noted in Audubon’s subscription list but otherwise unknown, was most likely the subscriber of the Society’s copy. After passing through the hands of several owners in England, it became the property of the Dukes of Newcastle, who had it bound in four tooled and gilded leather volumes, emblazoned with the Newcastle arms. In 1937 the contents of the Clumber Library, property of the late Seventh Duke of Newcastle, were sold at auction at Sotheby’s, London. The Rosenbach Company of Philadelphia, under the aegis of the collector and dealer Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, purchased the Historical Society’s copy of The Birds of America for Mrs. Gratia Houghton Rinehart, sister of the eminent bibliophile, Arthur Houghton Jr.
Audubon conceived of his great work as a visual tour through the lives of the birds of North America. Turning the plates was meant to extend the experience over time, akin to popular moving panoramas that entertained people during Audubon’s era and foreshadowed the cinema. Audubon was criticized for not sequencing his plates in the Linnaean order, but responded: “I do not want to present to you the objects for which my work consists in the order adopted by systematic writers.” He was not producing a scientific catalogue but rather a work of art. Organizing his images organically gave the birds the semblance of life and evoked the experience of observing in nature.
This Regency style cabinet was custom-made to house the Historical Society’s leather-bound volumes of the double-elephant-size The Birds of America. It accompanied the gift of the four volumes but was not listed in the Sotheby’s catalogue for the 1937 sale of the library collection from Clumber House. Its four drawers feature mechanisms that open and convert the drawers into a table with legs for viewing each volume of the legendary work. When a drawer on each side is opened, the piece resembles a huge bird with open wings. These tables enabled the owner to show the large volumes, which required a minimum of two people to open. The convertible cabinet helps capture the ceremony involved in displaying Audubon’s world-renowned double-elephant-size plates in private collections and institutional libraries. The process echoes the naturalist’s wildly successful “road shows” of his watercolors, staged to raise subscription funds. Reviewing one of these exhibits, a London critic wrote, “Their plumages sparkle with nature’s own tints; you see them in motion or at rest, in their play and in their combats, in their anger fits and their caresses, singing, running, asleep, just awakened, beating the air, skimming the waves or rending one another in their battles…a vision of the New World.”
This year the cabinet has been retired and replaced with a state-of-the-art display cabinet so that the plates may be turned every week.