Thursday, November 26, 2009

Turkey Prints

Happy Thanksgiving! In honor of my favorite holiday, today I'll do a brief survey of prints of the turkey, which Benjamin Franklin thought should have been our national bird. In our neck of the woods these birds have made a significant come back and it is great to see them as I drive around the woods of Pennsylvania. You can also see them in print, as they have been pictured on paper for over four centuries!

As it happens, the first print of a turkey was also the first printed image of a North American bird. This was in an engraving published in 1591 by Theodor De Bry based on drawings by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues made while he was part of an attempted French settlement in the American southeast. Beginning in 1562, the French explored the coast from northern Florida to South Carolina. They tried to found a colony, under the command of Rene de Laudonnaiére, at Fort Caroline, but in 1565 they were massacred by the Spanish, who considered Florida to be their territory. Subsequently, to keep the French away, the Spanish built nearby a colony of their own, St. Augustine, thus founding the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States.

There were only two survivors of the massacre, Laudonniére and the artist Jacques Le Moyne. In 1590 publisher Theodor De Bry began a series of volumes about early explorations to the New World and his second volume was about the French expedition, based on the words of Laudonniére and with engravings based on the water colors of Le Moyne. The print just above shows the French when they explored the Port Royal River. It includes depictions of native flora (grapes and gourds) and fauna (deer and turkeys). The latter image (detail at top) is the first printed image of any North American bird.

In 1606, Dutch mapmaker Jodocus Hondius wanted to include a regional map of the American southeast in his edition of the Mercator Atlas. The best maps of this region available were those in the first two volumes of De Bry's Voyages, one of the Florida region and one of the "Virginia" region. Hondius put these two maps together to create his important "Virginiae Item et Floridae." For information and decoration, Hondius included a few images from the two De Bry volumes, including portraits of Indians, vignettes of Indian towns, and small images of the deer and turkey from the Port Royal print.

Other than incidental appearances like this, the turkey does not seem to have been illustrated in print again until the early 19th century. Mark Catesby, who published the first natural history or American flora and fauna in 1731-43, and who included over 100 engravings of American birds, did not show the turkey even though it must have been fairly common. Perhaps it was considered too ordinary. Even Alexander Wilson, who followed Catesby's work with the first American ornithology in 1808-1814, did not picture the turkey. This was corrected in Charles Lucien Bonaparte's American Ornithology; or the Natural History of Birds inhabiting the United States, not given by Wilson, which was issued in 1825-33, after Wilson's death in 1813. Bonaparte's print of the turkey, shown here, is a lovely engraving by Alexander Lawson after a drawing by Philadelphia artist Titian Ramsay Peale.

The next major ornithological work on American birds was, of course, John James Audubon's mammoth Birds of America, a large folio work containing 435 hand-colored aquatints, mostly by Robert Havell, issued 1827-38. The very first print in the work was Audubon's great image of the male turkey cock (below left) and Audubon also included a plate of the female and young (above). These are without question the greatest of all turkey prints and the male turkey print is often among the most expensive of all Audubon's prints. In 1860, a second folio edition of Audubon's Birds of America was attempted, this time published using chromolithography. The advent of the Civil War basically killed off this expensive project before it was completed (as many of the subscribers were from the South), but not before a second edition of the male turkey print was produced (below right).

All of these folio Audubon prints are expensive, but since that time there have been many other prints of turkeys and most of those are considerably more affordable. Among the best of these are the octavo edition prints that are smaller versions of Audubon's folio prints. The first-edition octavo Audubon prints are somewhat expensive, though very collectible, but the later editions are also very attractive and definitely more affordable.

In the later part of the nineteenth century natural histories using chromolithographed prints began to appear. These were usually issued in fairly large numbers and this means that these prints tend to be relatively inexpensive, though they are also bright and colorful. Thomas Gentry included a nice image of turkeys with their eggs (above) in his 1882 Nests and Eggs of Birds of the United States and even an 1899 book on poultry breeding included a charming image of a pair of turkeys (below).

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