John James Audubon's The Birds of North America was published between 1827 and 1839. Most copies of the work were sold by subscription to patrons solicited personally by Audubon in England and America, King George IV and the Library of Congress being among the first subscribers. Commonly known as the Double Elephant Folio because of its extraordinary size, Audubon's work contains 435 carefully hand-colored etchings, usually bound into four volumes. These were produced in two of the most reputable printing shops of 19th century England from watercolor drawings which Audubon prepared from his own field studies.
It is not uncommon for illustrated works in the history of science and medicine to transcend the boundaries between technical illustration and art. The production of Audubon's Birds exemplifies the process where a desire for an intensely accurate description of nature results in a work of major artistic stature. The Folio, popular from the beginning because of its brilliant coloring and highly original and naturalistic compositions of birds in their native habitats, has often been broken up and the plates sold individually. Only about 130 complete sets are known to survive today.
The John Crerar Library copy of the Double Elephant Folio was owned in the 19th century by Henry Probasco,an avid book collector of Cincinnati, Ohio. Probasco was not among the original subscribers and no earlier provenance for this copy is known. It was brought to Chicago by the Newberry Library in 1890 and subsequently acquired by the Crerar Library in 1898. Complete restoration and restabilization of the work was completed in 1995 and made possible by a grant from the University of Chicago Women's Board. The Crerar copy is housed in the Department of Special Collections in the Joseph Regenstein Library where it may be consulted by appointment.
The species represented by the five prints are Key West Pigeon, or Dove (Geotrygon chrysia, upper right), Boat-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus major (Icteridae )), Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens (Ardeidae), lower right), Golden-winged Woodpecker(Picus auratus, state bird of Alabama other common names: Northern Flicker or Yellowhammer, left), and Winter Hawk (Falco hyemalis). Other images (and some selected text) from Birds may be found on the Audubon Society website at http://www.audubon.org/bird/BoA/BOA_index.html.