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Friday, August 10, 2012

A Charming Forest Scene Painted by Audubon’s Colleague: Robert Havell, Jr.

Robert Havell (1793-1878)
Picnic Along the Hudson
Oil on artist’s board
Board size: 11 x 18 inches; Framed size: 20 1/2 x 13 3/4 inches
London, circa 1830

Robert Havell, Jr. was the principal engraver of John James Audubon's sumptuous Birds of America, the most important natural history publication of all time.  His aquatint engraving and delicate coloring of the 435-print series is now recognized as a significant artistic achievement in its own right, and an essential component of the success of Birds of America.  It is through Havell’s genius that the scientific truth and artistic beauty of Audubon’s ornithological drawings came to life in the most lauded series ever published.

Havell's involvement in Birds of America helped him to develop an incredible intimacy with Audubon's work, so that he began to add his own touches to the individual prints, such as backgrounds and even changes in composition.  Audubon no less recognized the importance of his working relationship with Havell, and it could be said that Audubon's works could not have reached their utmost quality without the help of the skilled engraver.  The consistency of quality of the 435 plates that were produced did not waver over the years, most likely due to Havell and Audubon's incredibly strict adherence to a complex, multi-step process to produce a single engraving.  The end result was the production of the greatest natural history folio to ever be produced, making Audubon one of the most well-known and researched American artists and Havell, one of the most renowned engravers.  Their work ascends in value and appreciation among collectors, art enthusiasts and the general public to this day.

The partnership between Audubon and Havell began by a chance encounter between the ornithogist and the engraver’s father.  In 1826, John James Audubon sailed to London with the hopes he could find an appropriate engraver talented enough for incredible undertaking of producing life-sized aquatints of North American birds.  It was in Marylebone, a small district of London teeming with artist and print studios, where Audubon encountered the publishing firm where Robert Havell, Senior worked as an engraver.  The elder Havell enlisted his son, Robert, Jr., also a finished artist in aquatint engraving, to work on the Birds of America series.  Working together, Robert, Jr. undertook the engraving and Robert, Sr. colored and printed the enormous “elephant folio” plates. 

After his father's death in 1832, the younger Havell assumed sole responsibility for producing the series, leading to a partnership between himself and the famed ornithologist that would shape both their careers.  Havell soon dropped the “Junior” from his signature,  leading writers over the years to ascribe the Audubon plates to the older man, whereas except for the first ten plates, young Robert was the sole engraver of the series, “the most sumptuous work to which aquatint was ever applied in illustration” (D.M. Stauffer, from Engravers Upon Copper and Steel, 1907). 

In  addition to his role as principle engraver, Havell eventually took over his father’s former job of coloring the works.  Assistants applied the first washes, but then he laid the more salient tones and and delicate details.  Through his devotion to these details Havell was able to overcome the limitations of his medium, securing the softness of birds’ plumage and crisp definition of the bird forms and plants.  With his great contribution to the series that has maintained unparalleled iconic status in present-day America, Havell advanced Audubon’s career and developed the skills necessary to become an artist in his own right.

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