Golden Eagle (Falco chrysaetos). Proof, or pattern, plate for plate 181 of "The Birds of America"

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AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851) - HAVELL, Robert (1793-1878) - HAVELL, Henry Augustus (1803-?). Golden Eagle (Falco chrysaetos). Proof, or pattern, plate for plate 181 of "The Birds of America". London: Robert Havell, Jr., 1833.

Single sheet (ca 33 4/8 x 22 4/8 inches). THE UNIQUE PROOF OR PATTERN PLATE FOR AUDUBON'S ICONIC GOLDEN EAGLE, engraved aquatint with original hand-colour, annotated lower left "Golden Headed Eagle" (worn and torn with loss to the extremities).      

Provenance: with Sotheby's, New York, 15th June 2006, lot 34; purchased by Michael Zinman.

Published as plate 181 in Audubon's magnum opus “The Birds of America”, London: Robert Havell, Jr, 1827-1838. This plate hung in the same room as the colourists employed by Havell, and was used by them as a template for their meticulous colouring of each published plate. As such it shows signs of use, it was likely coloured by Henry Augustus Havell under the supervision, and to the exacting standards of Audubon himself.

Audubon's "The Birds of America", is undoubtedly the grandest and most sumptuous colourplate folio/book ever produced, is arguably the most important natural history publication of the 19th-century, and one of the finest achievements of American art. The first few plates were engraved and coloured in Edinburgh by W. H. Lizars', but when the colourists went on strike Audbon was forced to transfer the store of completed prints, in various stages of completion, to London, where by good fortune he happened on the Havell family of publishers. In a letter to his wife Lucy during the summer of 1827 he wrote: "I have made arrangements with a Mr. Havell, an excellent engraver who has a good establishment containing printers - colourers and engravers so that I can have all under my eye when I am in London and no longer will be stopped by want of paper, or coppers that M.r Lizars was obliged to order from here; sometimes with risks and at all events with a considerable expense extra..." (Joseph Goddu, "Artist's Proofs for The Birds of America", Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 2002, page 26)

Once the engraving had been "developed to its final 'state', and a finished version of the black-and white print achieved, it was ready for colouring. A hand-painted master proof or colouring guide was then worked up for the artist's approval for use as a 'pattern' to be copied by the colourist...Robert Havell, Jr.s, brother, Henry Havell, worked up many of these master colour guides, or 'patterns', and was often called upon to supervise the staff of colourists. In 1832, the artist's eldest son, Victor Gifford Audubon, arrived in London to supervise the printing, and by 1834 was joined by his mother... Once the pattern was approved, it was given to a team of colourists for them to copy; each person was assigned a specific colour and element in the composition to finish" (Joseph Goddu "Artist's Proofs for The Birds of America", Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 2002, page 26).

For five of the eleven years publishing "The Birds of America" took, Audubon was travelling Great Britain and the Continent to secure subscribers, collecting  overdue receipts, and to America gathering subjects for further drawings and so plates. So Havell oversaw the engraving and colouring of the plates, forwarding proof plates of each number to Audubon to approve or edit, to assure that the engraving and colouring remained as faithful to Audubon's original vision as possible.

Audubon's dramatic account of how he found and drew the Golden Eagle appears in volume II of the "Ornithological Biography", beginning at page 464: "In the early part of February 1833, while at Boston in Massachusetts, I chanced to call on Mr Greenwood, the proprietor of the Museum of that city, who informed me that he had purchased a very fine Eagle, the name of which he was desirous of knowing. The bird was produced, and as I directed my eye towards its own deep, bold and stern one, I recognised it at once as belonging to the species whose habits I have here to describe, and I determined to obtain possession of it. Mr Greenwood, who is a very kind as well as talented person, being asked if he would part with the noble bird, readily answered in the affirmative, and left to me to determine its value, which I accordingly did, and carried off my purchase. His report of the manner in which the royal prisoner had been secured, was as follows:—" The man from which I bought it had it in the same cage it is now in, on the top of his market-waggon, and when I asked its price, said that the Eagle had been caught in a spring-trap set for foxes on the white mountains of New Hampshire. One morning the trap was missing, but on searching for it, it was at last discovered more than a mile from its original place, and held the bird by one of its toes only. The eagle flew about through the woods for several hundred yards, but was at last with difficulty secured. This took place a few days ago."

The Eagle was immediately conveyed to my place of residence, covered by a blanket, to save him, in his adversity, from the gaze of the people. I placed the cage so as to afford me a good view of the captive, and I must acknowledge that as I watched his eye, and observed his looks of proud disdain, I felt towards him not so generously as I ought to have done. At times I was half inclined to restore to him his freedom, that he might return to his native mountains; nay, I several times thought how pleasing it would be to see him spread out his broad wings and sail away towards the rocks of his wild haunts; but then, reader, some one seemed to whisper that I ought to take the portrait of the magnificent bird, and I abandoned the more generous design of setting him at liberty, for the express purpose of shewing you his semblance.
I occupied myself a whole day in watching his movements; on the next I came to a determination as to the position in which I might best represent him; and on the third thought of how I could take away his life with the least pain to him. I consulted several persons on the subject, and among others my most worthy and generous friend, Geohge Parkman, Esq. M. D., who kindly visited my family every day. He spoke of suffocating him by means of burning charcoal, of killing him by electricity, &c. and we both concluded that the first method would probably be the easiest for ourselves, and the least painful to him. Accordingly the bird was removed in his prison into a very small room, and closely covered with blankets, into which was introduced a pan of lighted charcoal, when the windows and door were fastened, and the blankets tucked in beneath the cage. I waited, expecting every moment to hear him fall down from his perch; but after listening for hours, I opened the door, raised the blankets, and peeped under them amidst a mass of suffocating fumes. There stood the Eagle on his perch, with his bright unflinching eye turned towards me, and as lively and vigorous as ever! Instantly reclosing every aperture, I resumed my station at the door, and towards midnight, not having heard the least noise, I again took a peep at my victim. He was still uninjured, although the air of the closet was insupportable to my son and myself, and that of the adjoining apartment began to feel unpleasant. I persevered, however, for ten hours in all, when finding that the charcoal fumes would not produce the desired effect, I retired to rest wearied and disappointed.
Early next morning I tried the charcoal anew, adding to it a quantity of sulphur, but we were nearly driven from our home in a few hours by the stifling vapours, while the noble bird continued to stand erect, and to look defiance at us whenever we approached his post of martyrdom. His fierce demeanour precluded all internal application, and at last I was compelled to resort to a method always used as the last expedient, and a most effectual one. I thrust a long pointed piece of steel through his heart, when my proud prisoner instantly fell dead, without even ruffling a feather.

I sat up nearly the whole of another night to outline him, and worked so constantly at the drawing, that it nearly cost me my life. I was suddenly seized with a spasmodic affection, that much alarmed my family, and completely prostrated me for some days; but, thanks to my heavenly Preserver, and the immediate and unremitting attention of my most worthy friends Drs Parkman, Shattuck, and Warren, I was soon restored to health, and enabled to pursue my labours. The drawing of this Eagle took me fourteen days, and I had never before laboured so incessantly excepting at that of the Wild Turkey.

The Golden Eagle, although a permanent resident in the United States, is of rare occurrence there, it being seldom that one sees more than a pair or two in the course of a year, unless he be an inhabitant of the mountains, or of the large plains spread out at their base. I have seen a few of them on the wing along the shores of the Hudson, others on the upper parts of the Mississippi, some among the Alleghanies, and a pair in the State of Maine. At Labrador we saw an individual sailing, at the height of a few yards, over the moss-covered surface of the drear) rocks.

Although possessed of a powerful flight, it has not the speed of many Hawks, nor even of the White-headed Eagle. It cannot, like the latter, pursue and seize on the wing the prey it longs for, but is obliged to glide down through the air for a certain height to insure the success of its enterprise. The keenness of its eye, however, makes up for this defect, and enables it to spy, at a great distance, the objects on which it preys; and it seldom misses its aim, as it falls with the swiftness of a meteor towards the spot on which they are concealed. When at a great height in the air, its gyrations are uncommonly beautiful, being slow and of wide circuit, and becoming the majesty of the king of birds. It often continues them for hours at a time, with apparently the greatest ease.

The nest of this noble species is always placed on an inaccessible shelf of some rugged precipice,—never, that I am aware of, on a tree. It is of great size, flat, and consists merely of a few dead sticks and brambles, so bare at times that the eggs might be said to be deposited on the naked rock. They are generally two, sometimes three, having a length of 3£ inches, and a diameter at the broadest part of The shell is thick and smooth, dull white, brushed over, as it were, with undefined patches of brown, which are most numerous at the larger end. The period at which they are deposited, is the end of February or the beginning of March. I have never seen the young when newly hatched, but know that they do not leave the nest until nearly able to provide for themselves, when their parents drive them off from their home, and finally from their hunting grounds. A pair of these birds bred on the rocky shores of the Hudson for eight successive years, and in the same chasm of the rock.

Their notes are harsh and sharp, resembling at times the barking of a dog, especially about the breeding season, when they become extremely noisy and turbulent, flying more swiftly than at other times, alighting more frequently, and evincing a fretfulness which is not so observable after their eggs are laid.

They are capable of remaining without food for several days at a time, and eat voraciously whenever they find an opportunity. Young fawns, racoons, hares, wild turkeys, and other large birds, are their usual food, and they devour putrid flesh only when hard pressed by hunger, none alighting on carrion at any other time. They are nice in cleaning the skin or plucking the feathers of their prey, although they swallow their food in large pieces, often mixed with hair and bones, which they afterwards disgorge. They are muscular, strong, and hardy, capable of bearing extreme cold without injury, and of pursuing their avocations in the most tempestuous weather. A full grown female weighs about twelve pounds, the male about two pounds and a half less. This species seldom removes far from its place of residence, and the attachment of two individuals of different sexes appears to continue for years.

They do not obtain the full beauty of their plumage until the fourth year, the Ring-tailed Eagle of authors being the young in the dress of the second and third years. Our north-western Indians are fond of ornamenting their persons and implements of war with the tail-feathers of this Eagle, which they kill or raise expressly for that purpose.

I conclude my account of this species with an anecdote relating to it given in one of Dr Rush's lectures upon the effects of fear on man. During the revolutionary war, a company of soldiers were stationed near the highlands of the Hudson River. A Golden Eagle had placed her nest in a cleft of the rocks half way between the summit and the river. A soldier was let down by his companions suspended by a rope fastened around his body. When he reached the nest, he suddenly found himself attacked by the Eagle; in self defence he drew the only weapon about him, his knife, and made repeated passes at the bird, when accidentally he cut the rope almost off*. It began unravelling; those above hastily drew him up, and relieved him from his perilous situation at the moment when he expected to be precipitated to the bottom. The Doctor stated that so powerful was the effect of the fear the soldier had experienced whilst in danger, that ere three days had elapsed his hair became quite grey".