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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Seeing Audubon through Historical Print Techniques


This project funds the one-time purchase of rare library materials in support of research to identify and reverse-engineer historic printmaking methods used in one of the world’s most renowned and valuable books, John James Audubon’s double-elephant folio of the Birds of America. Published between 1827 and 1838 and considered Audubon’s “greatest triumph,” the massive four-volume set contains hand-colored etchings made by Robert Havell Sr. and his son Robert Havell Jr. The Havells based their work on the mercurial artist’s letters and the notes he penciled into the margin of each watercolor dispatched from America to the Havell London-based print shop.

Audubon is often referred to as the world’s greatest painter of birds and yet little is known about the father and son engravers who measured, re-drew, and etched into copper plates nearly 500 bird species from Audubon’s drawings and watercolors, adding life-like color and enhancing background scenes of native bird habitats.

Limited edition, 21st-century facsimiles of the original watercolors and uncolored Havel prints acquired through this program will allow side-by-side examination with the corresponding Thordarson Collection copy of Audubon’s Birds of America in the Department of Special Collections. Close attention to Audubon’s hand-written notes to Havell, evidence of the resulting pattern making in the Havell shop, and techniques deployed in producing hundreds of copper plates will enhance understanding of intersections between the artist in the field, the engraver in the print shop, and the scientific study of nature.

Research questions related to illustrated natural history, the publication of etchings and aquatints, and the nature and deployment of facsimiles and multiple editions engage faculty and students in numerous disciplines on (and off) campus. The research opportunities afforded by this acquisition will serve scholarly interests on campus and beyond connecting art, nature, science and history.


Emily Arthur, Associate Professor of Art


Robin Rider, Curator of Special Collections, Memorial Library