Discovered!: The First Engraving of an Audubon Bird

By Peck, Robert M.; Newman, Eric P. | Journal of the Early Republic, October 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Discovered!: The First Engraving of an Audubon Bird


Peck, Robert M., Newman, Eric P., Journal of the Early Republic


It is both ironic and appropriate that John James Audubon (1785-1851), who spent much of his life struggling to achieve financial security, wrote that his first engraved illustration of a bird was on a piece of American paper money. Until now, despite repeated efforts by Audubon scholars to substantiate it, the artist's claim has lacked physical evidence, or a plausible explanation for its absence, raising doubts about whether such paper currency ever existed. Beginning in 1955, Audubon's devoted biographer Alice Ford began an unsuccessful, decade-long search for the referenced engraving in both the United States and Great Britain. In 1960, William H. Dillistin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a noted numismatic scholar, made his own systematic search for the Audubon bank note. Working at the behest of Princeton University, which was then organizing a national exhibition on the artist's life and work, Dillistin was no more successful than Ford in tracking down the illusive currency. Audubon's more recent biographers (Ron Tyler, William Souder, and Richard Rhodes) also have searched in vain for the bank note Audubon mentioned. Unable to find the evidence of Audubon's claim, others may have dismissed it as a red herring, invented by Audubon (a frequent embellisher of his own achievements) to burnish his reputation in the lean years before publishing his landmark book, The Birds of America (1827-1838). But new research on nineteenth-century American banking and the engraving companies that furnished paper money at the time confirms the reliability of the artist's assertion and explains how forces beyond his control may have hidden Audubon's fledgling entry into the visual world of commerce.1

We know of Audubon's first venture into the realm of commercial illustration from only two sources; both are entries in the artist's private diaries. The first reference occurs on July 12, 1824, when Audubon, who was then seeking patronage for The Birds of America in Philadelphia, noted, "I drew for Mr. Fairman a small grouse to be put on a banknote belonging to the State of New-Jersey." Unfortunately, the original diary in which this record appears was lost in a fire and is known only through Audubon's granddaughter's edited transcription. The second, equally cryptic mention of the illustration occurs in the journal he kept while he was in England. Fortunately, this volume still exits. In an entry dated September 9, 1826, the artist mentions showing an example of his grouse-decorated bank note to William Rathbone (1787-1868), a prominent Liverpool merchant and ship owner whose friendship and support of Audubon did much to advance the artist's reputation and acceptance in England: "I remained the night at Wm. Rathbone's," Audubon recorded, "[and] presented him with a copy of Fairman's Engraving of [my] Bank Note Plate."2

The Mr. Fairman to whom Audubon refers was Gideon Fairman (1774-1827), a principal in the engraving firm of Fairman, Draper, Underwood & Co. of Philadelphia (1823-1830) that specialized in the preparation of paper currency for financial institutions. It was Fairman who advised Audubon to seek the superior engraving capabilities in England for the publication of The Birds of America. Their brief interaction and its effect on Audubon was described by Audubon in his journal and has been well documented in the existing Audubon literature.

Remaining unexamined until now is the paper trail that traces the influence Audubon had on Fairman and his company. A sample sheet of images suitable for the decoration of bank notes that has the imprint of Fairman, Draper, Underwood 8c Co. in the very year of the fateful Fairman- Audubon meeting (in 1824) serves as the baseline to document the offerings of the Fairman firm prior to Fairman's meeting with Audubon. It contains a selection of some complexly engraved numerals and geometric roundels that were specifically designed for usefulness and decoration as well as to discourage the counterfeiting of paper currency. …

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