Researchers unveil "holy grail" of Audubon illustration

Fri Jul 30, 2010 2:14pm EDT
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By Jon Hurdle

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - Researchers have found the first published illustration by John James Audubon, America's most famous bird artist, ending decades of searching for the prized but elusive work.

Audubon had made two references to the illustration in his diaries, but it had never been seen until it was found on a sheet of sample images produced in 1824 by a New Jersey engraver who specialized in illustrations for banknotes.

Eric Newman, a numismatic, or currency, historian working with Robert Peck, a senior fellow with Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences who had spent the last decade looking for the long-lost illustration, discovered it.

"It's the holy grail of Audubon scholarship," said Peck. "It's significant because it was at a significant turning point in his life."

Some researchers doubted its existence and even suggested that Audubon lied when he wrote about it to enhance his reputation before the publication of his masterwork "Birds of America," starting in 1827.

Although it is unsigned, the image is clearly Audubon's work because its detail - the bird is shown running through its grassy habitat - is characteristic of the artist's ornithological expertise, according to experts.

"This is vintage, quintessential Audubon," said Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New York Historical Society, which houses all 435 original watercolors for "Birds of America."

The discovery, announced by the Academy on Thursday, will be published in the Journal of the Early Republic, a historical periodical, this fall.   Continued...

<p>An Audubon illustration of a grouse is seen in an undated handout image. REUTERS/Handout/Academy of Natural Sciences</p>