John James Audubon Collection

Plate showing a Roseate Spoonbill, from John James Audubon's Birds of America.


John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827-1838) is probably the most famous of all bird books. Our copy was the gift of Mary W. Runnells in 1969. This set is consistently rich and brilliant in its coloring. The four volumes are bound in a systematic arrangement -- rather than in the usual plate number order -- that closely follows Audubon's ordering of birds in his Synopsis of the Birds of America (1839). The original owner of our copy was Dr. Benjamin Phillips, a close friend of Audubon and the Audubon's family physician in London. This is one of three copies for which thirteen extra "composite" plates were prepared by overprinting images from other copperplates onto the normal state of a print. These overprintings corrected errors, oversights and problems of timing in preparation of the plates that had occurred during this mammoth twelve-year publishing enterprise. The composite prints -- bringing together images of species separated in normal states of the work -- facilitate the systematic arrangement of the prints, and thus represent the ideal state of Audubon's great work. The three sets with composites were prepared for Benjamin Phillips, Edward Harris, and Audubon himself. The Harris copy was probably never bound and has almost certainly been dispersed. The Audubon copy is in the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas. The Runnells copy is that originally owned by Phillips.

The Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room also holds the “Audubon Ottoman,” an upholstered storage cabinet that not only houses all four volumes but provides individual display tables for them. In 2007, the Museum undertook a major cosmetic conservation of the Audubon Ottoman. Over the course of two months, conservator Tatsumi Brown logged 346 hours carefully cleaning the ottoman and designing a new, historically correct cover of brocaded silk, returning this one-of-a-kind piece to its original beauty.

An important addition to the collection in 1999 was Audubon’s manuscript journal of 1826, the gift of Charles W. Palmer and family. This most important of his surviving manuscript journals is the record of the naturalist’s pivotal voyage to Scotland and England to seek publication of The Birds of America.

The Audubon collection also includes a superb set of the plates from the original edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-1848). This set of 150 matted plates was the gift of Brooks McCormick in 2002. The ornithological collection of former museum president Edward Ayer includes another copy of this edition, as well as a copy of the Bien edition of The Birds of America (1860), A Synopsis of the Birds of North America (1839) and multiple octavo editions of the works Ornithological Biography and The Birds of America.

Further Reading: