inside pebble hill
Pebble Hill Plantation’s Audubon Collection
By: Lori Curtis and Whitney White
The Main House at Pebble Hill Plantation is filled with beautiful antiques, china, decorative arts, and it is also home to the family’s collection of first edition prints by John James Audubon.
The Hanna family of Cleveland, Ohio purchased Pebble Hill in 1896 to be their winter home. The Hanna daughter, Kate Hanna Ireland (later Harvey), became mistress of the plantation in 1901. Mrs. Harvey’s love of the outdoors is reflected in much of the décor of the house and its collections.
She began purchasing original Audubon prints in the early 1900’s, and it is understood that these pieces were saved when the 1850 Main House burned in 1934. According to reports, when she was working with the architect on the new Main House plans, Mrs. Harvey had the moldings in the main hall designed to accommodate the Audubon collection.
Mrs. Harvey’s daughter, Elisabeth Ireland (later Poe), inherited Pebble Hill upon her mother’s death and continued to add to the collection of Audubon works. There is correspondence in the archives between Mrs. Poe and art dealers, Kennedy and Company of New York, regarding the purchase of some of the Audubon pieces in the collection today. Audubon prints have graced the walls of the Main House for nearly eighty years.
Like her mother, Mrs. Poe loved the outdoor environment of the Red Hills region. She amassed oil paintings, watercolors, bronze sculptures, and prints of images illustrating the life of the sportsman and the lover of nature. Notable artists such as Sir Alfred Munnings, John Emms, Thomas Blinks, and Aiden Lassel Ripley are all represented. However, the collection of thirty-three original prints by John James Audubon stands out as the largest assemblage of any single artist exhibited in the collection. Each Audubon in the Pebble Hill collection was carefully chosen because the birds pictured are either native to or migrate through this region.
John James Audubon was born in Santo Domingo, present-day Haiti, in 1785. From the time of his youth, Audubon was interested in birds and their nature. After a brief education in France, he moved to America to live on property his father owned in Philadelphia. When he came to America, he began to document the local birds in watercolor and mixed media. Sometime around 1820, he announced his intention to document every bird in North America. Not only did he want to document them, he wanted to portray each bird life-size and in its natural surroundings.
On a trip to England in 1826, Audubon showed his work to notable artist, Thomas Scully, who then showed the pieces to other artists of influence. He was invited to exhibit his works at the esteemed Royal Academy. (It is worth noting that many of the artists included in the Pebble Hill collection had their works shown at the Royal Academy.)
The popularity of Audubon’s works grew, and he set out to find an engraver to print the images for publication and eventual sale through subscription. The plan allowed for each subscriber to receive a set of five prints every month with there being a total of 87 sets. The price for a complete series, including additional text information to accompany each of the prints, was $10,000.00.
In 1827, Wm. Lizars of Edinburgh was hired by Audubon to begin the massive project, but he ended up only engraving 10 plates of the ultimate 435 that would complete the project. Lizars was unable to fulfill his contract with Audubon when his colorists went on strike. Audubon then went in search of another highly reputable engraver and was referred to Robert Havell, Sr. Havell was engaged to complete the project, and Robert Havell, Jr. oversaw the production through its completion in 1838. Havell re-worked some of the earlier engravings that Lizars had done and did some of the coloring himself. The Havell edition is also sometimes referred to as the Double Elephant folio edition, because of the large paper size of 27.5” x 39.5”. Havell worked in his shop in London, often with Audubon giving direct supervision. The methods used for creating the prints were engraving on a copper plate, etching, aquatint, and hand-coloring with watercolor. There were about forty colorists, most of whom were women, who worked in assembly-line fashion. Each of them applied a different color to the black and white prints.
In 1858 after Audubon’s death, his son, John Woodhouse Audubon, conceived the idea of reissuing the Birds of America set as a way to generate income. Production began in America on the Bien edition of prints. These pieces were produced using a newly emerging printing process called chromolithography. However, this publication was never completed. Only fifteen sets of 105 prints were produced. Fewer than 100 subscriptions were sold. So, the Bien series is the rarest of the early editions. Because the Audubon family produced these prints, they are classified as originals.
The Pebble Hill collection is impressive in that it has three different editions represented – one by engraver Lizars (Great American Hen and Young), two Biens (Wild Turkey and Summer or Wood Duck), and thirty by Havell. The Great American Hen and Young piece was engraved by Wm. Lizars, but Havell was the colorist. This is an example of one of the engravings that Havell re-worked and colored when he was hired by Audubon to complete the project.
Included in the Pebble Hill collection is the image of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, now thought to be an extinct species. The text that Audubon provided to subscribers to accompany this piece is quite interesting and shows how much can change in a relatively short period of time. “…I have only to add to what I have said of the habits and distribution of this species, that I found it very abundant along the finely wooded margins of that singular stream, called “Buffalo Bayou,” in Texas, where we procured several specimens…”
Thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Poe in deciding to make her home a museum upon her death, visitors from all over the world have the opportunity to view and enjoy the family’s incredible collection of Audubon prints on display at Pebble Hill.
Some information for this article was collected from the following sources: “What is Birds of America?” from the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, “Audubon Print Primer” from the Princeton Library, “Audubon Galleries” by Susan Low, New York Historical Society, Audubonprints.com, Minnie’s Land, and “Audubon’s America” by Donald Culcross Peattie.