Audubon’s accompanying text observed:
The Downy Woodpecker, which is best known in all parts of the United States by the name of Sapsucker, is perhaps not surpassed by any of its tribe in hardiness, industry, or vivacity. If you watch its motions while in the woods, the orchard, or the garden, you will find it ever at work. It perforates the bark of trees with uncommon regularity and care; and, in my opinion, greatly assists their growth and health, and renders them also more productive. Few of the farmers, however, agree with me in this respect; but those who have had experience in the growing of fruit-trees, and have attended to the effects produced by the boring of this Woodpecker, will testify to the accuracy of my statement.
This species is met with, during summer, in the depth of the forest, as well as in the orchard or the garden. In winter it frequently visits the wood-pile of the farmer, close to his house, or resorts to his corn-crib, where, however, it does little damage. I have found it pretty generally distributed from the lower parts of Louisiana to Labrador, and as far to the westward as I have travelled. It seems, in fact, to accommodate itself to circumstances, and to live contented anywhere.
John James Audubon, the most renowned American bird artist and ornithologist, was born in Haiti, in 1785. When French control of Haiti ended in 1803, he was sent to his father’s farm near Philadelphia. He married and moved to Kentucky five years later. A self-taught artist, Audubon developed his own methods of mounting birds so he could draw them in lifelike positions. He also expanded on showing the birds in the natural habitat, following the lead of Mark Catesby (1682- 1749), an English naturalist responsible for the first published illustrated account of the flora and fauna of North America. Audubon conceived of the project to document the birds of America in 1810, but financial setbacks prevented him from seriously embarking upon it until 1820. He and his family relocated to Louisiana, and from there he explored vast regions of the United States along the East Coast and through parts of the Midwest, drawing the various species of birds in their natural habitats.
In 1826, Audubon traveled to England with his portfolio of ornithological works to seek support for its publication, and was warmly received by influential members of the scientific community, who helped him make the necessary connections. Audubon’s original drawings and watercolors were engraved and published as The Birds of America, principally in London, by Robert Havell, Jr., in an unprecedented “double elephant folio” size. Approximately 200 sets were issued in parts of five prints each, from 1827 to 1838, and then often bound as a set of books. This exceedingly rare work is now considered the greatest natural history color-plate book ever made in terms of its historical and scientific importance and accuracy, the artistry of the compositions, and the quality and size of the prints.
Robert Havell Jr. was a British-born engraver and painter, and member of the renowned Havell family of artists. He learned the art of aquatint engraving from his father, Robert Havell Sr. and worked in the family engraving business and then with Colnaghi’s in London. He established himself as a master of aquatint with 425 plates (of the set of 435 plates) he executed for John James Audubon’s double elephant folio first edition of The Birds of America, published principally in London between 1827 and 1838. In 1839, at Audubon’s invitation, Havell moved with his family to New York and embarked on a new career as a landscape painter in the style of the Hudson River school, while also working as an engraver. He lived in Ossining and Tarrytown and traveled throughout the Northeast, sketching views which he translated into oil paintings and engravings at home. Perhaps his best known aquatint is Niagara Falls from the Chinese Pagoda, which he engraved after one of his paintings. His works are in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The White House, the New York Historical Society and many others.
Full publication information: “No. 23. Plate CXII. Downy Woodpecker, Picus Pubescens. Male, 1. Female, 2. Bignonia capreolata. Drawn from Nature by JJ Audubon FRS FLS. Engraved, Printed & Coloured by R. Havell, 1831.”
Condition: Generally very good, recently professionally cleaned and deacidfied, with light remaining overall light toning, wear, and handling.
Audubon, John James. The Birds of America, from Drawings made in the United States and their Territories. Re-issued by J.W. Audubon. New York: Roe Lockwood & Son: 1861. Vol. 7, pp. 159-160. Online at Google Books:http://books.google.com/books?id=GQk6AQAAIAAJ (28 October 2011).
Nissen, Claus. Die Illustrierten Vogelbucher: ihre Geschichte und Bibliographie. Stuttgart: 1976. 49.
“Robert Havell Jr.” The Grove Dictionary of Art. New York: Macmillan. 2000. Artnet.com.http://www2.artnet.com/library/03/0369/T036956.asp (9 September 2003).
Sitwell, Sacheverell. Fine Bird Books, 1700-1900. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990. p. 57.
Wood, Casey A. (ed.) An Introduction to the Literature of Vertebrate Zoology Based Chiefly on the Titles in the Blacker Library of Zoology, the Emma Shearer Wood Library of Ornithology, the Bibliotheca Osleriana, and Other Libraries of McGill University, Montreal. London: Humphry Milford, Oxford University Press, 1931. p. 207.
Zellman, Michael David. American Art Analog, Vol. 1. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. p. 113 (Havell).
Zimmer, John Todd. Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library. Zoological Series, Publ. 239-240, Vol. 16. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1926. pp. 18-20, 20-21.