March 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Audubon's Aviary

As Oscar Wilde put it, "The birds are singing for joy of the Spring's glad birth." The New-York Historical Society is set to open part one of a major, three-part exhibition featuring all 474 original watercolors related to the double-elephant folio first edition of Audubon's Birds of America. NYHS acquired all but one of the watercolors in 1863 from the artist's widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon. She also sent all 435 watercolor models.

1863_17_039_TuftedTitmouse.jpgAudubon's Aviary: The Complete Flock, Part I, on view March 8 - May 19, will display the artist's watercolors in the order in which they were engraved--and received by original subscribers. It will showcase more than 200 avian watercolors, the first 175 models, and a range of objects from the NYHS's Auduboniana collection, including a handwritten draft, Robert Havell's engraved copper plates, hand-colored proofs, and various documents related to the book's publication.

Even if The Birds of America was not the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction, this exhibit would still be a must for bibliophiles. A lavishly illustrated and award-winning book by Roberta J.M. Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, complements the exhibit.

Coincidentally, Abbeville Press has just published a new baby elephant folio printing of Birds of America, derived from the original plates of the National Audubon Society's archival copy of the original, with text by Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson.

Image caption: John James Audubon (1785-1851), Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), Study for Havell pl. no. 39, 1822. Watercolor, graphite, gouache, and black ink with touches of black chalk and glazing on paper, laid on card; 18 5/8 x 11 11/16; in. (47.3 x 29.7 cm). New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.39