When colourful birds become baby elephants

A complete set likely cost around $1,000 ($22,400 in 2015 dollars).
When colourful birds become baby elephants

KOCHI: When it comes to large-size books, nothing beats John James Audubon’s magnum opus Birds of America. Published as a series in sections between 1827 and 1838, his book of illustrations was published on the biggest paper available: a 39.5-inch by 26.5-inch sheet called the “double-elephant” folio! It dwarfed even the Gutenberg Bible; its paper size was “double folio”, with two pages printed on each side and each page measuring 17 inches by 12 inches.

Audubon created life-size drawings of every species of bird in North America – a total of 435 hand-coloured engravings of 1,065 birds. A complete set likely cost around $1,000 ($22,400 in 2015 dollars).

Many subscribers bound the plates into four massive volumes of around 100 illustrations apiece, each standing over 3ft tall and 2ft wide, and weighing around 50 pounds (about 63kg). Opening one of the volumes required at least two people!

So, what exactly is a folio? It is a term used in printing that has three distinct but interconnected meanings: a book made by folding the page once; a large-size book; or the approximate size of a book.

The actual size of a folio book depends on the size of the full sheet of paper on which it was printed, and in olden times these were not standardised, so the term’s meaning is only approximate.

Only 120 copies of the original Birds of America are known to have survived – 107 in institution collections and 13 in private hands.

In March 2000, Sheikh Saud al-Thani of Qatar purchased a copy of the book at a Christie’s auction for $8.8 million, a record for any book at auction. In December 2010, The

Economist magazine estimated that, adjusted for inflation, five of the ten highest prices ever paid for printed books were paid for copies of The Birds of America.

If you are a bird lover or collector, or anyone who appreciates the beauty of nature, Folio Society’s 1981 exquisite reproduction of Audubon’s Birds of America is a true masterpiece of art and literature (and relatively affordable at around $250).

Edited by naturalist Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Mary Peterson, the 435-page publication has 917 illustrations, including 482 in full colour. The cover is bound in luxurious leather and the book is affectionately known as the ‘Baby Elephant’ folio.

Another rare large-size book in my collection is ‘The Constitution of India’, which is a 20-inch by 15-inch (‘Royal Folio’). This copy belonged to V K Menon who wrote the first draft of the Preamble to the Constitution, and I have not seen any other copy of this book yet.

The largest book in my collection is the ‘Elephant Folio Edition’ of The Illuminated Manuscripts of the Middle Ages. This book by Humphreys and Jones (only in about 100 copies), published in 1849 in England, is considered the most iconic colour plate book of the 19th century.

For the first time, the most beautiful miniatures from the 12th to the 16th century was engraved, hand-coloured and gold-illuminated. Up to 14 colour runs were required for each plate to capture the original colours.

The illuminated miniatures here have been painstakingly drawn by Humphreys and Jones (both were architects), then engraved on a plate, hand-coloured and gilded. The amazingly faithful facsimiles are accompanied by expert and scholarly commentary by Humphreys, and the text pages are printed on letterpress.

Even though the binding of the book (by a bespoke English binder James Wren) is superb, and it is in the original deluxe leather binding, it’s a huge effort for me to get the book out and turn the pages!

All I can say is that, if you have large-size books in your collection, you must be prepared for the inconvenience of finding a suitable place to keep them.

(The views are personal)

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