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  John James Audubon, “Hooping Crane,”
(London: R. Havell, 1834).
Audubon, Hooping Crane

A Magnificent Havell Edition of
Audubon’s Great Whooping Crane

John James Audubon. “Plate 226: Hooping Crane. GRUS AMERICANA. Adult Male.” (London: R. Havell, 1834). First variant with “Hooping” in the title and the following imprint: “Engraved Printed & Coloured by R. Havell 1834.” Published in The Birds of North America. Double elephant folio sheet; hand-colored engraving with aquatint and etching on J. Whatman paper. Plate size: 36 3/4 x 24 3/4". Sheet: 39 x 26 1/4" (the full size used by Havell). Frame size: 49 1/4 x 36". Very minor crimps at old stab holes on left binding edge. Outstanding color and condition. Handsome archival presentation.

The monumental format of The Birds of North America originated with Audubon’s insistence that he depict all known species found on the continent and that each species be shown life-sized. He soon realized that no American printer was capable of executing the work on the scale he envisioned. He took the work to England where he could find engravers with the technical and scientific proficiency to translate his paintings into prints. He eventually met Robert Havell and his son Robert, Jr., the latter of whom became the principal collaborator with the artist on the enormous project. Together they achieved the greatest of all bird books and perhaps the highest achievement of ornithological art of all time. Indeed, Havell’s feat of engraving, printing, and coloring the Birds was a major achievement in itself and the last of its kind. By the time Havell finished the project, most engravers and aquatinters had gone out of business as the faster and less expensive process of lithography had overtaken the reproduction of paintings. Audubon’s “imperishable monument,” as the North American Review called it, was the final illustrated bird book to be produced in England by the craft of metal engraving and aquatint. The Birds also turned out to be the last job that Havell did in his home country. In 1839, he sold the business and moved to New York where he established a career in painting.

The engraving offered here is one of the finest and most impressive of the Audubon images. It presents, in nearly life size, an adult male whooping crane or Grus Americana (Linnaean classification) about to eat a baby alligator. Another baby alligator lies on its back a few inches away. The background is filled with a lush rendition of a Louisiana bayou. Audubon was, at this point in his life, a tutor at the Pirrie plantation where he spent much of his time roaming and painting in the woods near St. Francisville. He wrote in his journal on November 20, 1821, that while sketching near New Orleans, his hunter brought him a superb specimen of a whooping crane. “He painted the bird,” writes Low, “added to it from time to time, and completed it later. Audubon called both this bird and the Sandhill Crane in CCLXI ‘Hooping Cranes.’ He thought the Sandhill was the young of the Whooper, although they are, of course, two species.”

Today, the whooping crane is the most publicized endangered species in North America. “It is with some shock,” notes Peterson, “that we learn that Audubon himself killed seven with two shots. . . . He states that during its winter sojourn in the south it was ‘abundant in Georgia and Florida, and from thence to Texas.’ But, inasmuch as he believed the sandhill crane to be the young of the whooping crane, such statements are suspect. There may never have been as many whooping cranes in the early days as we have been led to believe. However, there is no question that they were much reduced until by 1948 there were less than three dozen whoopers in the world. By 1953 the number had dropped to about 23.” The news is better today, as the North American population has climbed to well over 400.

The print exemplifies Audubon’s superior skills as an artist of the natural world, as well as Robert Havell’s as the premier engraver and printer of his age. A strong impression, beautifully colored, from one of the great works of the nineteenth century.

Refs.: Susanne M. Low, A Guide to Audubon’s Birds of America (New Haven and New York: William Reese Company & Donald A. Heald, 2002), p. 131 (illus.); Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson, The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio / Audubon's Birds of America (New York: Abbeville Press, 1981), no. 132; Ron Tyler, Audubon’s Great National Work (Austin: W. Thomas Taylor, 1993), p. 45.

Copyright 2003, William R. Talbot