Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology

In an earlier blog, I wrote about Alexander Wilson, often called the "father of American ornithology." He earned this sobriquet mainly for his illustrated work on American birds entitled American Ornithology, the first work specifically on the topic. In this blog, I'll look closer at this monumental publication.


When completed, American Ornithology consisted of nine volumes published in Philadelphia by Bradford and Inskeep between 1808 and 1814 It contained 76 hand colored engravings composed of 320 figures depicting 262 species, including 48 that had never before been recorded. According to one study, this was over three quarters of the bird species that resided in the United States as it was then constituted, a really impressive achievement for the first attempt at an American ornithology.


Typically of illustrated books of the period, this was sold by subscription, where subscribers would get the work in "parts" or "fascicles," which they would then pay for, allowing the author to use that money to produce the next part; this process continuing until the book was finished.


Alexander Wilson was able to sign up just over 450 subscribers, for a total of about $60,000 in orders. However, with all the delays, added costs, and other problems, Wilson never received any significant money from the project and upon his death his estate consisted mostly of just a few copies of his book.


The birds in the American Ornithology were not shown in any scientific order, but essentially in the order Wilson came across them, beginning with the more common and popular birds. Wilson prepared his drawings for each bird based on his field sketches, as well as on studies he made of specimens that he had collected or which were given to him or which he found in the Peale Museum.


Wilson’s drawings were engraved onto copper plates by a number of engravers, including John G. Warnicke, but mostly by his friend and compatriot Alexander Lawson. Several species were usually put onto a single plate, sometimes quite crammed in, mainly because this was cheaper in terms of the cost of the copper for the plates, but also so Wilson could show more birds within the scope of the proposed work.


One point to note is that funding was more available when George Ord produced the later editions-—as the work had by then achieved a considerable reputation—-so whereas the paper used in the first edition was barely bigger than the plates themselves, the later edition prints have bigger margins. The lack of money for the first edition, compared to the later editions, also means that the paper and ink for the first edition were not as good quality and so first edition prints tend to have condition issues not found in the later edition prints.


In the book, Wilson included a short description of each bird and often also a longer essay which was based on his extensive observations. Wilson’s text frequently was fairly philosophical, reflecting his poetic background. It really is the writing of an enthusiast rather than a clinical scientist.


In terms of the prints, Wilson examined each copper plate as it was finished and he also superintended the coloring of each print. In most cases Wilson provided the colorists with specimens to follow. There is a story that on April 18, 1807, when a new plate had come from the engraver and was ready to be color, Wilson could find no sample specimen of the Black-capped nuthatch. Thus, he set off to shoot one of these relatively common birds, but was frustrated in not being able to find one.


For the coloring, Wilson started by using local artists, such as Alexander Rider (who would later be involved with Bonaparte’s supplement), but he then switched to amateur or untrained artists who would follow his directions more closely. One of these was Charles Robert Leslie, who moved to England and went on to become a famous artist there.


Wilson was very concerned about the color accuracy of his prints and he felt that sometimes the use of a black ink would have negatively affected the appearance of the bird in the print, so he experimented with printing areas of some of the prints in different colored ink. For instance, the Library Company of Philadelphia has a nice example of the “Roseate Spoonbill” which has the body of the bird printed with a red ink. [Click here to see more information on this print and the color printing]


If one is used to looking at the dramatic and imposing double-elephant folio prints of John James Audubon, then Wilson's small folio images might seem tame and unimpressive. However, they are really charming images, teaming with a variety of birds, their unusual appearance fascinatingly explained by the history of the work from whence they came.


The price range on Wilson prints is very moderate, especially when compared to those of Audubon, and really given their unique aesthetic appeal and historical significance, they are, in my opinion, rather under appreciated and priced. I think there are few, if any, antique prints that are a better value and I would recommend these for anyone interested in bird prints.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Re-Presenting the Past: Currier & Ives

In past blogs (for instance in the blog on print journals) I have written about the American Historical Print Society’s excellent magazine Imprint. This journal always contains articles of interest, but the recent Spring 2012 issue has an article of special note to me, Hazel Brandenburg’s "Re-Presenting the Past: Currier & Ives in 1920s America."


This well considered article looks at the role that Currier & Ives played in the American public’s consciousness in the 1920s. I have written several times over the years about how my particular fascination with antique prints concerns their role as cultural artifacts, both how and why they were made and how they were understood and used by the public. Dr. Hazel Brandenburg’s article takes this exact approach.


The decade of the 1920s was “a time of significant social disruption occasioned by the broad sweeps of urbanization, technological change, and the development of a new powerful mass culture.” (all quotes are from Brandenburg’s article in Imprint, Volume 37, No. 1) This general social unease led to a turning away by the American public from foreign influences and the “promotion of all things American.”


This social focus on Americana, though, was not on the unsettled and confusing modern America, but rather looked to America of years gone by. “Uncomfortable with the present and anxious about the future, Americans turned their eyes to the past—-or at least to a particular vision of an American past that seemed more authentic, uncomplicated, and pure.”


One of the reflections of this societal concentration on early America was an increase in interest in American antiques, where Americana collecting came to seen as “a patriotic endeavor.”


And what could be more an exemplar of American history that Currier & Ives prints, which “were the epitome of Americana; overwhelmingly American in subject matter, produced by American craftsmen, and displayed in American households, there was nothing else so distinctly American in the mind of many collectors.”


In the 1920s, there was a surge in interest in Currier & Ives prints, with these paradigm pieces of Americana increasingly being listed in shop inventories, advertisements and auctions, some of the latter of which almost exclusively consisted of this firm’s output.


The American public seemed to love these lithographs where “the scenes depicted in these prints provided direct visual ‘evidence’ of a simpler and happier American past.” And while the general trend at the time was a focus on the very early period in American history, the mid to late nineteenth century Currier & Ives prints still seemed to fit the bill for what the public wanted. “Although in actuality most of them were produced well after the ‘early American’ period being celebrated by collectors during this period, they seemed of a piece with the earlier furniture and accessories so eagerly sought after.”


This is all clearly and insightfully explained (in much more interesting detail) in the Imprint article, and this is just the type of thing I find fascinating. The article, though, resonated with me especially in the way it rings sympathetic notes with research I had done on an analysis of the differences between the Original and New Best 50 Currier & Ives lists which had been made-up, respectively in 1932-33 and 1991.


In the article I wrote based on that analysis (In Currier & Ives. The New Best 50. American Historical Print Collectors Society, 1991), I looked at the differences between the types of subjects that were popular with Currier & Ives aficionados from the 1930s and those from six decades later. I think many of the same feelings Brandenburg’s article discusses for collectors in the 1920s were still active in the ‘30s, and her work shines new light on what I had found previously.


One of the conclusions I came to was that general American “scenic” prints (scenes of charming houses in the woods or country and that type of thing) were the most popular type of prints in both periods. I think that the nostalgia of the 1920s for this idyllic, sylvan life-style is still present with Americans. Our forefathers never, of course, had such a simple and pleasant life, but this ideal image is clearly as strongly embedded in our national consciousness today as it was almost a century ago.


In contrast, perhaps the biggest difference between the lists from the different periods I noticed was the popularity of American historical prints with the Original lists compared to their singular lack of popularity in the New lists.


There were actually two lists for each period, one for large folio prints and one for small folio prints, but in both cases there was more popularity for historical prints in the Original prints versus the New prints. This was especially pronounced with the small folio lists. In the Original Best 50 small folio list there were 13 historical prints, over a quarter of the list. In the New Best 50 small folio list there was only one historical print, a mere 2% of the New 50.


When one looks at which historical prints were in the Original list, the vast majority were from the distant American past, not the more recent past, and even more interesting, their subjects were of events that took place before the Currier & Ives firm was producing prints, not those they issued on contemporary events.


For instance, there was only one war print in this list from those the firm issued contemporary to the events shown. There were none from the Mexican-American War and only one of the Civil War image “Terrific Combat Between the Monitor…and the Merrimac,” even though Currier & Ives issued many prints of both wars during the conflicts. Instead, most of the prints were from the American Revolution, e.g. “Washington Cross the Delaware,” “Cornwallis Is Taken!”, or even earlier, for instance, “Landing of the Pilgrims.”


Brandenburg’s article, I think, helps explain why these Revolutionary War and early American history prints were so popular early in the twentieth century. As she wrote, “Uncomfortable with the present and anxious about the future, Americans turned their eyes to the past—or at least to a particular vision of an American past that seemed more authentic, uncomplicated, and pure.” It was the early settlers and the founding fathers who expressed in clear terms what American was about, not the complicated issues and uncertainties of the Civil War, so it was these idealized prints which fit the American public’s mood at that time.


Today, in contrast, I think that while we still have an idealized vision in our heads of what life was like in the simpler past, we no more see the founding of this country as such a clear-cut noble and pure event. Instead, the approach to our history that most collectors have today is for authenticity rather than nostalgia.


Today, collectors want, as much as possible, contemporary and accurate images of American history, not idealized images drawn by commercial artists a century after the fact. Even those prints by Currier & Ives which copy contemporary images have much less appeal as they add nothing to the original prints. It is interesting that the only historical print to make the New Best 50 small folio list was a contemporary print from the Civil War, “The Fall of Richmond, Virginia.”


There is much more to chew on by looking at tastes for Currier & Ives prints now, early in the last century, and of course at the time they were issued. Hazel Brandenburg’s "Re-Presenting the Past: Currier & Ives in 1920s America" is a really nice addition to the literature on this subject and well worth a read.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Shaping the Trans-Mississippi West: 1840-1849. Part 3.

In the previous two blogs of the series "Shaping the Trans-Mississippi West," we looked at how two huge areas were added to the United States between 1840 and 1849, the Oregon Territory and the Mexican Cession. While these were the most important developments in the country in this period, there was some redrawing of borders in the northern part of the original Louisiana Territory during this decade.


That development had its origins almost as far back as the Louisiana Purchase, with the creation of the Michigan Territory in 1805. This territory was originally carved out of the lands that lay north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River, what was called then the Northwest Territory. In 1834, that part of the Louisiana Purchase between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, to the north of the state of Missouri became attached to the Michigan Territory. This area included all of today’s Iowa, Minnesota, and the eastern parts of the Dakotas.


Two years later, in 1836, the western part of the Michigan Territory was organized as the Wisconsin Territory, in anticipation of the remainder of the territory becoming the state of Michigan in 1837.


In 1838, this territory was broken up so that only those lands to the east of the Mississippi River remained as the Wisconsin Territory, the western section being created as the Iowa Territory.


Settlers had begun to pour into the Iowa Territory in the early 1830s and by the beginning of the next decade there was sufficient population in the southern part of the territory to warrant creating a state there. Iowa was admitted as a state in 1846, in part to balance the admission the year before of the slave state of Florida with a new free-soil state. The remainder of what had been the Iowa Territory, those lands north of Iowa lying between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, together with the northwest part of the Wisconsin Territory which was left over when the state of Wisconsin was created in 1848, become the Minnesota Territory in 1849.


The creation of the Minnesota Territory was the only official political change in the trans-Mississippi West east of the continental divide in this decade. However, this period did see the beginning of a movement to create a new territory which would see fruition in the 1850s.


With the increased emigration of Americans to Oregon Country and California beginning in the 1830s, there was concern in Washington of the need for the development of the lands through which the emigrants would have to pass on their way from the Mississippi River to the Rockies. The necessity of a military presence for protection, a formal government structure for laws, and settlers to help feed and house the emigrants made it evident that a new territory was needed across the midsection of the vast Indian Territory which had been created in 1834.


The name for this proposed territory was to be "Nebraska," a name first used by Fremont to refer to the Platte River, which was for much of its length a main route for the emigrants. "Nebrathka," was an Otoe word for 'flat water' and was used by them as the name for the Platte. A bill to create the Nebraska Territory was introduced in 1844, with another put forth in 1848; both failed at this time because of the sectional differences between North and South. It would take many years before these differences were able to be overcome.


Go to next blog in this series, on political developments in the 1850s.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Alexander Wilson

I have just returned from an excellent Antiques Forum in New Orleans, where I presented a paper on Alexander Wilson. He has always been one of my favorite "print makers," and it was fun to put together a coherent talk on the subject. In a few blogs in the next weeks I will share the contents of this lecture in this blog. Today, a short history of Wilson and his seminal American Ornithology.


When most people think of the study and illustration of American birds, they think of John James Audubon, who monumental tome, Birds of America, came out between 1827 to 1838. However, while Audubon’s work is in many ways the pinnacle of American bird illustration, the study of this subject began well before Audubon, and two decades earlier, Audubon was preceded by another naturalist whose seminal publication and prints of American birds, gives its author, Alexander Wilson, priority of claim as the pioneer in the field of American ornithology.


Alexander Wilson was born on July 6th, 1766, in Paisley, Scotland, the son of a smuggler turned weaver. He originally was educated with the eye of going into the ministry, but his mother died when he was nine, his father remarrying, and Alexander was soon taken out of school. That was the only formal education Wilson ever had.


As a young man, Wilson had a variety of jobs, though mostly he worked as a weaver and peddler, yet at heart he was of a more philosophical bent. Wilson grew to love nature and wandered widely through the Scottish woods. He read extensively, especially poetry which he also wrote, achieving some success as a poet in his native land. Wilson’s most famous poem, though published anonymously, was, Watty and Meg, a favorite among the Scots which was sometimes was attributed to Robert Burns.


Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Wilson got himself into trouble by publishing satires in support of Paisley’s weavers against the mill owners, eventually being arrested for trying to blackmail a mill owner by using the threat of publishing a pamphlet against him. As a result, Wilson spent time on and off in jail. This, and his concern over the possible repercussions of his connections with political radicals, finally decided Wilson that he should emigrate to America, which he did in 1794.


Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, Wilson found jobs at an engraver’s shop, as a weaver, as a surveyor, but primarily as a school teacher. In 1802, he took up a teaching position at the Union School near Gray’s Ferry, just across the Schuylkill from Philadelphia. This move changed his life, for he found himself living and working very near the home of William Bartram, the preeminent American natural scientist of the day.


In America, Wilson continued to wander in the woods and he came to have a particular interest in birds, partly as a hunter but also as a naturalist. Wilson was particularly amazed by the variety and beauty of American birds compared to those in Europe. William Bartram took notice of his new neighbor, clearly a budding naturalist, and he befriended Wilson, especially encouraging him in his ornithological interest. Bartram allowed Wilson to explore his extensive woods, use his library and introduced Wilson to the world of Philadelphia naturalists.


Wilson’s enthusiasm was fully aroused and within a year of his move Wilson stated that he would attempt to assemble “a collection of all our finest birds.” By that he meant American birds, and he intended not only to collect specimens, but also to make drawings.


In 1804, Wilson took a long trip with his nephew and another young man to Niagara Falls, They walked almost the entire way from Philadelphia and back, and during the trip Wilson continued to study new birds he saw, shooting specimens and making drawings. Upon his return, Wilson wrote a very long account of his trip, in verse, entitled The Foresters, which was printed in the Portfolio magazine with illustrations. It has been said that the trip to Niagara “convinced Wilson that ornithology was his vocation,” and he certainly continued to develop his studies.


At this time, Wilson heard about the proposed Zebulon Pike expedition to explore the western territories and so he wrote Thomas Jefferson offering his services as a naturalist for the expedition. Wilson never heard back from the President. It may have been that because this was supposed to be a secret expedition Jefferson didn’t want to reply, but he later denied seeing Wilson’s offer, so it may simply have been that the letter never got through to the President.


In any case, Wilson tried again to contact Jefferson, and under a covering letter from William Bartram, he sent the President a sketch of some of the birds he had discovered. This time Jefferson replied with a thank you note for the “elegant drawings of the new birds you found.”


At some point in this period, Wilson devised a plan to produce an illustrated natural history of “all the birds of this part of North America.” He had about 100 finished drawings of birds and decided that he could produce a book of hand-colored engravings, with text, which would document all the birds of America. In order to show what these prints would look like, Wilson borrowed tools from his friend and fellow Scotsman, Alexander Lawson, who was a Philadelphia engraver, and between November 1805 and January 1806 etched plates for the Blue Jay and the Eagle, which he then printed and hand colored as sample prints for his intended publication.


Wilson then tried to convince Lawson to join him in publishing this proposed work. His plan was to produce a set of 10 volumes with 10 plates in each, which would sell for $120 for the whole set, but would be sold by subscription at $12 per volume. Wilson planned to start with the more popular birds in the first volume, so as to entice people to subscribe, and then he would be able to use the money that came in from each volume in order to produce the next volume and also to continue to travel around the country to collect specimens.


Wilson calculated that he would need about 200 subscriptions to finance the project, but Lawson told him his plan was too ambitious and that he would not be interested in joining with Wilson in this venture. Yes, if he got 200 subscribers he would make some profit, but with all the costs of the copper plates, the engraving, the printing, the paper, the hand coloring, the potential profit was not worth the upfront investment and risk.


Unable to secure financial support from his friend Lawson, Wilson was very fortunate when in early 1806, Philadelphia publisher Samuel Bradford hired him as assistant editor for the American edition of Ree’s Cyclopaedia. Bradford was intrigued by Wilson’s ornithological project and he decided to back Wilson in the publication of this proposed work. Bradford realized there was an opportunity to piggy-back the Wilson book with the Cyclopedia, for he could have Wilson travel around the country selling subscriptions for both works, and at the same time Wilson could gather information for future volumes of the bird book.


Bradford agreed to publish the first volume of the book, which was to be entitled American Ornithology. His firm, Bradford & Inskeep, would underwrite the cost of this volume, to be published in an edition of 200 copies, but the project would be dropped if Wilson was unable to secure enough subscribers. Wilson and Bradford produced a prospectus and two sample plates which Wilson could take with him to show to potential subscribers. The prospectus said that American Ornithology would be issued in bi-monthly numbers, with three plates per number, to be sold at $2 each. However, they ended up issuing the work in volumes, instead of numbers, with 9 plates per volume.


So, Wilson began a series of extensive trips around the United States to sell the Cyclopedia and, more importantly to him, to get subscribers for American Ornithology. Over the next five years, Wilson was to travel more than 10,000 miles, much of it on foot, visiting every state in the United States, as well many of its territories. Wilson visited anywhere there were people interested in scientific subjects who he thought might subscribe.


These trips were not, however, just for selling subscriptions, for throughout his travels Wilson continued to work on research for his book. He made field drawings, recorded observations on the habits and habitats of the birds, and also shot birds to be used as specimens. The Carolina parakeet above was the actual specimen used by Wilson for his print of the bird.


Wilson was also able to gather specimens from his various correspondents, including from Meriweather Lewis, who upon his return from his expedition with William Clark gave Wilson the bird specimens he had brought back with him. These included three new species: the Western Tanager, Clark’s Crow, and Lewis’ Woodpecker, which Wilson put on a plate in the Ornithology.


Subscriptions went slowly at first and throughout the publication history of the book there was considerable financial pressure on Wilson because subscribers did not pay anything until they actually received the volumes. When he wasn’t out drumming up subscriptions, Wilson was busy with his drawings, writing up his notes, and personally checking on the plates and colorings as the prints came out.


The first volume was completed in Sept. 1808. 200 copies were produced with 158 pages of text and 9 plates depicting 34 birds. Wilson was able to take copies of this volume with him on his selling trip to New England and New York, which was not very successful, to a great extent because of the Embargo of 1807. However, his subsequent trip to the American South was more fruitful, as that region was not nearly as impacted by the embargo.


On the latter trip Wilson sold a subscription to Thomas Jefferson, met and befriended Georgia naturalist John Abbot—-who was a regular help to Wilson thereafter—-and was at last able to meet Bradford’s demand for 200 subscribers. It seemed that the American Ornithology would be a success, with Wilson even convincing Bradford to increase the run of plates to 500.


The second volume was delayed, however, because there were more plates needed for this volume, plus there were extra 300 plates needed for Volume 1 for the new subscribers, and also because of the problems involved in hand-coloring so many plates. The second volume finally came out at the very beginning of 1810 and the third not following until March 1811.


In early 1811, Wilson quit as editor of Ree’s Cyclopaedia so he could concentrate on American Ornithology. The financial situation was not good, as the volumes were taking longer to produce than anticipated and no monies came in until they were delivered. Not only that, but by late 1811 the tensions which would lead to the War of 1812 had begun to affect the country’s economy, causing some subscribers to drop out and making supplies harder and more expensive to get.


Wilson worked feverishly on, publishing the fourth volume in September 1811, the fifth in February, 1812, and the sixth in August of that year. To exasperate his problems, financial issues caused all his colorists to quit in the winter of 1812, so Wilson had to do all the subsequent coloring of the prints on his own.


About this time Wilson began his acquaintance with George Ord, a local dilatant and amateur naturalist. Inspired by Wilson, Ord soon dedicated himself to the study of ornithology, bringing Wilson many new specimens and accompanying him on frequent trips to find new species.


In the spring of 1813, the seventh volume of American Ornithology was issued, but just four months later Wilson died of dysentery. George Ord was named one of his executors and he undertook the publishing of the final two volumes. All the plates for these had already been drawn, but one plate for Volume 8 still needed to be engraved and Ord had to edit Wilson’s notes on the birds for the last volume. These two volumes were published in 1814, the last volume containing only 4 prints.


Ord took on the role as protector of Wilson’s legacy, and early in the next decade he commissioned Charles-Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew and a respected naturalist who had settled near Philadelphia, to produce American Ornithology; or the Natural History of Birds inhabiting the United States, not given by Wilson. This work, usually called Bonaparte’s Supplement, was issued in four volumes from 1825 to 1833, illustrating 27 new species. Ord also produced a second edition of Wilson’s 9 volume set in 1824-25, and a third edition, with two volumes of text and a single atlas volume of plates in 1828-29.


In a following blog, I look, with more in detail, at Wilson's American Ornithology and its plates.