BRASHER, Rex (1869-1960)
Birds and Trees of North America ... Done in Chickadee Valley, near Kent, Connecticut
Kent, Connecticut: Rex Brasher Associates, 1929-1932. 12 volumes, oblong folio. (12 x 17 1/2 inches). 867 photogravure plates by the Meriden Gravure Company after Brasher, hand-coloured by Brasher using an airbrush and the pochoir process. Each volume title page signed by Brasher.
Original half leather gilt, over masonite boards, the upper cover with three-colour blocked design below the author and title blocked in gilt, by Brewer Cantelmo Co. Inc. of New York
A very fine set of this extraordinary work on the native birds and trees of North America, limited to 100 copies, by "the greatest bird painter of all time" (John Burroughs).
The extraordinary conditions under which this work was assembled have ensured that no two copies of this work are identical. The 867 plates, the maximum number recorded, include images of 1,071 bird species or sub-species and 383 identified images of native American trees and shrubs.
The work marked the completion of a project that Brasher had begun in 1878: he determined to paint all of the birds of North America from life. With this is mind, he started bird painting seriously when he was about 16 but none of his early work survives as he grew dissatisfied and twice destroyed all his extant works. He finally mastered his chosen medium through the help and advice of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, whom he met in 1907 in the American Museum of Natural History. Brasher's chosen goal required him to study and record the birds in their natural habitat wherever possible. This meant numerous field trips, all of which he financed himself by various means; he worked on a fishing boat to allow him to study sea-birds, and many of his other trips were paid for by betting on the horses (a spectacular $10,000 win paid for an extended trip to the Midwest, the Smokies and the Gulf Coast). He travelled by train and on foot for many months at a time, pausing only to mail home his notes and drawings. On his return, he would work up the paintings in his New York apartment.
In 1911 Brasher bought a 150-acre farm which he called Chickadee Valley, near Kent, Connecticut, and it was here that much of the preliminary work for The Birds and Trees ... was carried out. By 1924, he considered that he had completed the task that he had set for himself 47 years earlier, but, not content with this monumental achievement, he now set himself the additional task of publishing his paintings with a suitable text. He discovered that it was going to be too expensive to reproduce the paintings using colour-printing, so settled on having the Meriden Gravure Company produce black and white photogravure prints. These were then coloured by hand using an unusual combination of stencils and airbrush. His niece Marie helped him with the text which was printed by the New Milford Times. The various components were assembled in a suitably renovated barn on the farm. According to the present prospectus, the original intention had been to publish 500 sets at $100 per volume (although a figure of $200 per volume is recorded elsewhere). By October 1929, when the first volume was sent out, 97 subscriptions had been received. The stock market crash followed shortly afterwards and the print-run was reduced to 100, but even this represents a huge achievement by Brasher: in four years he hand-coloured in the region of 90,000 prints. "Mr. Brasher's loving care bestowed in each hand-coloured plate is in the tradition of a hundred years earlier...Brasher's Birds and Trees belongs in a special category that is unique. Brasher had not written a great deal but his pages are interlarded with poetic imagery, often printed in contrasting italic or manuscript-style type....His work stands apart on the sideline of time, not to be judged with his contemporaries, nor indeed to be criticized. It is simply Rex Brasher" (Yale/Ripley).
"Rex Brasher's records of the birds of North America was encyclopedic...Audubon, who did not go to the Far West, and Fuertes, who had to concentrate on work as an illustrator, had painted only about 400 species and subspecies. Brasher worked from a checklist of the American Ornithologists' Union, generally regarded as virtually complete. He painted from life birds now extinct, such as the heath hen, passenger pigeon, [Carolina perroquet] and Eskimo curlew. Naturalists called Brasher's work 'the most complete pictorial reference to the birds of North America.' Time Magazine, comparing Brasher with Audubon and Fuertes, said: 'Rex Brasher alone had simultaneously the time, the ability, the monumental persistence, and the hard-headed fidelity to do it all.' Brasher told an interviewer that he had always hated steady work, and took jobs only because he had to. He said his prime goal had been accuracy... He could not conceive of a world without bird song, without their colour and beauty" (Doris E. Cook, The Monumental Life-Work of Rex Brasher , p. 14)
Nissen IVB 134; Wood 254; Yale/Ripley 39.