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The “American Woodsman”
As the frontier moved westward and wildlife declined, the tireless Audubon drove himself to record its wonders
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
These American excursions took him from the chill coast of Labrador to the keys of Florida and on to the remote republic of Texas. (While in that independent new nation he drank grog and swapped yarns with Sam Houston in his log house. A few months later he dined en famille with Andy Jackson at what, he reported, was then becoming familiarly and vulgarly known as “the White House,” where he learned that the President did not approve of the annexation of Texas.) In the end, the roster of birds he depicted had grown well beyond the number set forth in the prospectus, and, in a depression year, he was faced with balky subscribers who objected to still more expensive commitments, or with the unthinkable alternative of leaving his work incomplete. He finally squeezed the additional subjects into thirty-five new plates.
The whole operation had long since begun to demand far more energy, skill, and knowledge than Audubon alone could bring to it in his lifetime. Lucy and both their sons, now capable artists in their own right, were put to work. Audubon was ever hopeful that the lads might see the publication through on their own if he couldn’t finish it himself. “There will be no End to my Publications of Birds,” he wrote Havell, “or (which is the same) of my Sons Publications. My Youngest Son draws Well—Can you tell what is his or mine’s work in the last Drawings you saw?” Actually, Audubon himself never did tell. Here, as elsewhere, he was by no means careful about giving credit where it was due. At least one of the birds in the final work is altogether John’s, but there is no acknowledgment given in the text. Another is Lucy’s, although hers is clearly indicated as such. In the press for time, he brought his family and friends into the closest collaboration—into what he called his “Little Alliance.”
“Can we not push the work still faster?” he again wrote Havell from America. “So much travelling ex.posure and fatigue do I undergo, that the Machine me thinks is wearing out; and it would indeed be a pleasure for me to see the last of the present Publication.” He was relying ever more heavily on that competent man to finish his incomplete drawings on the copperas well as for many other services, such as selling skins, shells, and insects to the British Museum for cash to help meet the formidable weekly payroll of one hundred pounds. A scribbled note to Havell on one of the drawings, of a crippled great black-backed gull, reads, “finish this ground better.” “Amend this rascally sky and water,” he wrote on another original; on still another he asked the engraver to supply “an old rotten stick.” The entire setting of the great auk and of several other subjects are Havell’s agreeable inventions. Audubon always had trouble with landscapes—he was not a versatile artist—and, when he used them in his compositions, usually depended upon the efforts of one or another of the youthful artists who traveled with him, or left them for Havell to supply.
To expedite matters further, Audubon not only occasionally copied elements from his own earlier representations to supplement later ones, but a few times he cribbed from the rival ornithological publication of Alexander Wilson. A number of his final efforts were composed in part of pasted cutouts of figures—even individual blades of grass—from other discarded compositions. “Take great care of these Drawings,” he wrote Victor of one lot he sent to England from America, “and shew them to a very few of your Friends … as many Birds have been Pasted .”
Nothing really mattered save that the work be properly presented in the final printing, and that it all be finished before time ran out. Audubon reached in all directions for the help he had to .have. “You must stick a Cricket or a Grass hoper on a thorn before the bill of the Male Shrike on the wing,” he instructed Victor. “—It is their Habit—but could not procure one yesterday and today it rains hard. Have the edges of the little Grous (Young) softened in the Engraving”; and, he added, have the plants properly identified by a member of the Linnaean Society. Drawings of many of the plants, flowers, and some of the insects that were reproduced on the finished plates were supplied by the youngster Joe Mason, who accompanied Audubon down the Ohio in 1820, and in later years, at his urgent request, by Maria Martin, sister-inlaw and then wife of his naturalist friend, John Bachman. To Bachman he turned with ever-mounting insistence for more information to include in the bird biographies that would accompany the plates. “I am almost mad with the desire of publishing my gd VoI this year,” he wrote him in 1835. “I am growing old fast and must work at a double quick time now … Can you send me some good stories for Episodes? Send quickly and often … ‘any sort of things’ for Episodes connected with Natural History.”