John James Audubon’s first—and most famous—work was The Birds of America folio, a set of 435 hand-colored engraved prints based on his watercolor drawings of North American birds made between 1812 and 1838 (but mostly after 1820). It is considered a landmark in nineteenth-century American art. Known as the elephant folio after the size of the paper used (the largest available at the time), the work was originally published from 1827 to 1838 in 87 installments of five plates each, and sold by subscription. The birds presented in each installment of prints were not grouped in any scientific order. Except for the first ten plates which were initially engraved in Edinburgh, Scotland, by William H. Lizars, Birds of America was engraved and printed in London by Robert Havell, Jr. (1793-1878). Production of the plates combined copperplate engraving with a technique called aquatint, and each print was hand-colored by a team under Havell’s supervision, following Audubon’s original drawings. Plants, flowers, landscape backgrounds, and some other elements included with Audubon’s life-size birds in finished plates were the work of Joseph Mason, George Lehman, Maria Martin, Victor Audubon, and the engraver Havell. Until plate 353 was produced, only one bird species was depicted on each plate. Following Audubon’s 1836 purchase of 93 bird specimens collected in the western United States (an area to which he had not traveled), multiple species were grouped together on some of the later plates in order to avoid prolonging the number of installments. The work was designated to consist of four volumes, though it was up to individual and institutional subscribers to decide whether, and how, their copies of the plates would be bound.
The Birds of America was one of the largest and costliest works of natural history illustration ever produced using engraving with aquatint, as well as one of the last. After 1830, the newer and less expensive process of lithography began replacing engraving as a method of creating prints for publication. Fewer than 200 complete sets of the folio Birds were issued, because many subscribers (who were primarily in Britain and the United States) dropped out for various reasons. Only 119 complete sets were known to exist at the beginning of the 21st century. Audubon’s original watercolors for The Birds of America are held at the New-York Historical Society, which purchased them from Lucy Audubon in 1863. The engraved copperplates were sold as scrap metal for lack of an interested buyer, though a few were rescued and are preserved in various libraries and museums.
The folio edition of The Birds of America was issued without any text. Audubon began work in 1830 on writing descriptions of the bird species he depicted, assisted by Scottish naturalist William MacGillivray. These texts were published in the same order as the bird plates in the elephant folio, and were issued in five volumes in Edinburgh from 1831 to 1839 under the title Ornithological Biography. Interspersed among the bird descriptions in the first three volumes were narrative sketches by Audubon, also known as the “Episodes,” relating various aspects of frontier life in the United States as well as experiences from the journeys he made in search of birds. Though his bird “biographies” are not scientific descriptions by today’s standards, most were based on Audubon’s close observation of the characteristics and behaviors of birds he had seen in their natural environments. Another companion work to The Birds of America, also published in Edinburgh in 1839 and involving MacGillivray’s assistance, was Audubon’s A Synopsis of the Birds of North America, which grouped the depicted species by scientific classification and corrected some mistaken identifications.
After Audubon’s final return to the United States in 1839, he began work on two new publishing projects intended to generate income, and which required increased involvement by both of his sons. The first was a new edition of The Birds of America in a smaller format known as octavo, published in New York and Philadelphia from 1840 to 1844. Originally sold by subscription and issued in 100 parts, it contains 500 plates produced from reduced and modified versions of the images in the folio edition. Complete sets consist of seven volumes. The octavo plates are hand-colored lithographic prints made by the firm of John T. Bowen of Philadelphia. Only one bird species is depicted on each plate, and new species not included in the folio Birds were added after Audubon’s 1843 trip up the Missouri River. The octavo edition presents the birds in the classification order of the 1839 Synopsis, and also incorporates revised text from Ornithological Biography (minus the “Episodes”). It proved to be a great commercial success and made Audubon’s work known to a wider American audience. The octavo Birds was reissued several times after Audubon’s death by his sons, before the copyright passed to New York publisher Roe Lockwood. Editions after the first have less hand-coloring.
While the octavo Birds was being issued, Audubon also began an entirely new work on mammals, collaborating with his friend John Bachman (1790-1874) of Charleston, South Carolina, a clergyman and amateur naturalist regarded as an authority on North American mammals. Audubon made about half of the drawings for the 150 “imperial folio” plates (hand-colored lithographs by J. T. Bowen) first issued in thirty parts under the title The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America from 1845 to 1848. When failing eyesight and deteriorating mental abilities made his father unable to continue, John Woodhouse Audubon painted the remaining animals from museum specimens in Europe and some species collected during an expedition to Texas. Victor Audubon and Maria Martin contributed landscape backgrounds. The text, written mainly by Bachman, was first published separately in three octavo volumes from 1846 to 1854. An octavo edition combining reduced-size plates with the text, and including five additional plates by John Woodhouse, was first issued from 1849 to 1854 under the title The Quadrupeds of North America. As with the octavo Birds, the smaller edition of Quadrupeds was reissued by the Audubon sons and later by Roe Lockwood.
In 1858, John Woodhouse Audubon launched a full-sized reissue of The Birds of America elephant folio which was to be sold by subscription and produced as color-printed lithographs by Julius Bien of New York, with Roe Lockwood as publisher. Known as the Bien edition, this project had to be abandoned in 1861 after only one volume was issued (105 plates), due to the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War and the Audubon family’s financial difficulties. It is thought that not more than 100 sets of the Bien edition were printed, and fewer than half have survived intact.