Recent Acquisition: Rare 151st plate from Audubon’s Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America

Detail of Audubon's painting of a Jackalope

Rare 151st plate from Audubon’s Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Detail of Plate CXXIX

Guest post by: Aprille Phule, Curator of Cryptozoological Collections and Bibliochicanery

The University of Michigan Library marks its formal beginning with the purchase in 1839 of John James Audubon's The Birds of America (1827–1838). After a brief interval of a hundred and seventy five years, it has been joined by Audubon's final work. In August, we acquired the full set of John James Audubon's Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, featuring 151 hand-colored lithographic plates of American wildlife.

We have what has come to be called the “Imperial Folio” edition:

John James Audubon, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (New York: J.J. Audubon). This comprises 3 Imperial folio volumes of plates, accompanied by companion text in 3 quarto volumes, published 1846-1854. The illustrations are hand-colored stone lithographs drawn by J.J. Audubon and J.W. Audubon, with many backgrounds by V.G. Audubon. They were transferred to stone by W.E. Hitchcock and R. Trembly, then lithographed and printed by J.T. Bowen.  Originally, however, the work comprised just the colored plates, each measuring 22 x 28 inches, sold by subscription. Each of the 30 parts had 5 plates, and sold for $10.  

Recently, while browsing through the volumes, the curator was pleased to discover an additional  illustration tipped into the back of volume three. This plate is numbered CXXIX, and depicts the lepus antilooapra of North America. It is lacking in all other known copies of Audubon’s Quadrupeds.

While this is a wonder, it is not entirely a surprise. Audubon scholars have long known of the elusive 151st illustration, but until now no one has ever seen it. Rumours, however, have circulated nearly since the original release of the Imperial Folio edition.  Over the years, reams of paper have been written over, and gallons of ink spilled, in argument about the mysterious (and mysteriously redacted) plate CXXIX, and speculation about where and whether any copies are yet extant has never quite died down.

The image shows a buck Jackalope, who from his fine spreading rack of antlers is of at least three summers. Audubon has posed the Jackalope almost but not quite en passant. This nod to heraldic convention may be intended to disintermediate Audubon's previous publishing successes in England, represented by the British Royal Lion (l. britannicus officianalisen passant, and establish his positionality within notional systems of trans-Atlantic visual culture.

A mature buck Jackalope, shown in profile,  gazes out over the prairie. A cactus and a stump of wood are behind him, and low hills are shown in the background
This Jackalope is one of the 151 stunning hand-colored lithographs from the Viviparous Quadrupeds, of North America acquired last summer  in cooperation with the William L. Clements Library.    (Larger version)   

The artist’s and lithographers’ attention to detail can be appreciated in the extremely realistic texturing of the fur and horns. William L. Clements grapics curator Clayton Lewis speculates that the delicate white marks representing fur may have been created by scratches in the surface of the printing stone. He considers the story that  the lithographers used actual fur in the production of the images to be apocryphal. “Pish.” he said when asked. “Tosh. How many Jackalopes would they have had to shave to get all that fur? What kind of idiot spends his time on something like that?”  

“White paint, maybe,” he added “but fur? Ridiculous. Pure fabrication.”

Although the plates say “Drawn from nature”, Audubon did not paint “from the life”. He used stuffed and ingeniously posed models, many of which he had killed himself. He was an avid hunter, and prided himself on his shooting, ultimately using his skilled marksmanship as part of the wild backwoodsman persona he constructed for himself. It is certainly true, however, that his renderings were based on extensive field observations, and they are justly praised for combining scientific accuracy with artistic poses in natural settings. His depiction of this creature is more scientifically accurate than earlier illustrations, such as Plate XLVII in Joris Hoefnagel’s Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia, circa 1575.

Given Audubon’s long history of painting the species, the North American Jackalope has long been considered a peculiar omission from the Viviparous Quadrupeds. The artist’s interest in the Jackalope began early. In 1818, while his family was living in Henderson, Kentucky, Audubon did a watercolor of a Jackalope caught in a trap. This turned out to be a significant image for Audubon, both financially and in terms of public acclaim at a time when he was regaining in Europe the confidence he had lost in America.

According to one of his biographers, Alice Ford: “The ‘Jackalope in a Trap’ was his first exercise in England...He wished to present the Jackalope painting to the wife of one of his new and sympathetic friends, William Roscoe.” (Audubon's animals : the quadrupeds of North America / compiled & edited by Alice Ford.)

Later, out of gratitude to the wealthy Rathbone family, who had done so much for him in Liverpool, he painted one for William Rathbone’s wife, whom he called “the Queen Bee” She, however, found it too gory for her liking and ultimately gave it to the Royal Institution. However, it was generally well received: in his journal Audubon records his chagrin when his new European friends, and important advisors such as the portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence, ignored his avian paintings in order to praise the Jackalope. These excerpts from 1826 bear witness to his investment in the image.

"August 21. I painted many hours this day, finished my Jackalope"

"September 17, Sunday I gave to the Institution a large piece, the wild Turkey Cock; to Mrs. Rathbone, Sr., the Jackalope in a trap, to Mr. Roscoe a Robin, and to many of my other friends some small drawing, as mementos of one who will always cherish their memories."

"Sunday, December 3. My good friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lizars came in as usual after church; they like the Jackalope better than the Turkeys."

"Monday, December 4. I then took to my brushes and finished my Jackalope entirely. I had been just thirteen hours at it, and had I labored for thirteen weeks, I do not think I should have bettered it."

Moreover, during this same trip to Great Britain, while he was arranging to have the Birds published, he painted several copies of the “Jackalope Caught in a Trap” in oil and sold them to support himself. Alice Ford writes:

“By summer a desperate lack of funds returned him to his ever popular ‘Jackalope’; he made seven identical copies to sell in London, Liverpool, and Manchester, often taking them fresh from the easel to some street of dealers… He sold an uncertain number of copies of the ‘Jackalope’ and other oils to defray his expenses in 1828.” (Audubon's animals : the quadrupeds of North America / compiled & edited by Alice Ford.)

Indeed, Audubon's biographers speculate that it was the success of this image that encouraged him to think of undertaking the Quadrupeds as a successor to The Birds of  America.  It has long been thought curious, therefore, that a Jackalope was missing from the work

The “Jackalope Caught in a Trap” is not, however, the Jackalope of our Viviparous Quadrupeds.  Therefore, its appearance in our copy is not only unprecedented, as mentioned above, but raises further questions. How did it come to be painted?  Was it really part of the Quadrupeds?  If it was, why and how was it redacted?

The answers, it appears, lie in the Audubon family's history. Recent research has show that Audubon’s second son, John Woodhouse (the “J.W. Audubon” of the Viviparous Quadrupeds) was actually a daughter. Audubon, who was away from home when she was born in 1812,  somehow got the idea that he had sired a second son, doubling his hopes of having an artistic successor. Even as early as 1812, Lucy Bakewell Audubon knew her husband to be moody and extremely fragile emotionally, swinging as he did from intense elation and confidence to anxiety and the depths of despair.  For fear of upsetting him, it is believed, she chose to cater to Audubon’s mistaken belief, and J.W. was raised as a boy.

And, indeed, J.W. was a highly talented artist in her own right, as her work in the Viviparous Quadrupeds shows. What was more problematic was that from early on she was a crack shot with a rifle, surpassing everyone else in the family and indeed amongst Audubon’s whole acquaintance.  This was something Audubon had not anticipated, and reading between the lines of his letters and journals it is clear he rather resented it. Her superiority as a marksman came to annoy not only her father but also her older brother, Victor Gifford, who seems to have felt considerable resentment at being overshadowed as both an artist and a hunter by his “little brother.”

These family dynamics came to play a part in the mystery of plate CXXIX. The original plan had been for Audubon’s “Jackalope Caught in a Trap” to appear in the work.  But after the reaction of not only the public at the Scottish Academy’s Exhibition of 1826, but also friends, such as Mrs. Rathbone senior, to whom he presented copies, his advisors convinced Audubon it should be left out, deeming it too gory and upsetting an image.  

Unbeknownst to Audubon or any of the others involved in the publication of the Quadrupeds, J.W. had painted her own Jackalope, and bribed the lithographer's devils Hitchcock and Trembly to transfer it to stone.  When J.T Bowen received it with the rest, he accepted it unquestioningly and it was included in the original 26th Part.

Her ruse nearly succeeded, but was foiled by her older brother. In what was probably a fit of sibling rivalry, Victor Gifford, when he discovered it while looking through the plates, insisted that it be removed.  He used as his pretext the disappointment Audubon (who was by now dead) had experienced when his beloved “Jackalope Caught in a Trap” was censored, and the resentment he would have felt at the substitution of J.W.’s more placid depiction.

It seems Victor Audubon was not entirely successful, however. The evidence leads us to surmise that one copy of Part 26 had already been sent to an aristocratic French collector.  The plate found in our copy of the book bears a faint pencil inscription on the back in the hand of the Comte de Fortsas, an indication that it might once have belonged to his fabled private library.

Our discovery of plate CXXIX, then, goes a long way towards answering a number of the questions and mysteries surrounding Audubon’s Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. The William L. Clements Library and the Special Collections Library are proud to be making accessible this important work, in its only complete copy, and preserving it to be enjoyed by future generations.

To learn more about the Quadrupeds , please join us for this special event:

"The Birds and The Beasts:  Audubon's Masterpieces at the University of Michigan"

Wednesday, April 22

4:00 p.m.

Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, Gallery Room 100.

Further Reading:

Newton, Michael. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2005.

Ford, Alice. Audubon's animals : the quadrupeds of North America / compiled & edited by Alice Ford. New York : Studio Publications in association with Crowell, c1951.

Audubon, John James. Audubon and his journals, by Maria R. Audubon, with zoölogical and other notes by Elliott Coues ... London, J.C. Nimmo, 1898.

Ford, Alice. The 1826 journal of John James Audubon. Transcribed with an introd. and notes by Alice Ford from the original in the collection of Henry Bradley Martin. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press [1967]