This is a wonderful print of my favorite bird and the namesake for this blog the Albatross. Panteek Prints are based in Spokane, Washington and specialize in Antique Botanical and Natural History prints. They also sell through eBay if you don’t mind ‘duking’ it out at Auction. David and Sue have kindly let me borrow this short biography of Rex Brasher from their eBay listing. He was quite a remarkable man.
Rex Brasher never veered from the lifelong ambition he first formulated at the age of 10 to draw all the birds of North America. The story of his life is so moving, riveting and detailed that we cannot do justice to it here but refer the reader on to our list of references. Born in July 1869, the son of amateur ornithologist & taxidermist, Philip Marston Brasher, he was descended from a prominent French Huguenot family. Raised in an environment where ornithology was ever-present, there was much critical discussion in the household of bird art, including the imperfections in Audubon’s work.
Brasher attended St. Francis College in Brooklyn. Impoverished after the death of his father, he went at the age of 15 to work at Tiffany’s in the engraving department. This comprised the extent of his training in art or ornithology apart from some experience in taxidermy and work at a Port land, Maine photo-engraver. An adventurous young man with no attachments, he sailed a small sloop down the length of the Atlantic Coast to Key West, Florida, observing and sketching the abundant bird species in his travels in much the same spirit as those who preceded him had for almost 300 years.
After returning to Brooklyn, New York, he spent the major part of his life perfecting his drawings, several times destroying his sketches and beginning again. A lifetime bachelor, he was not impeded in his goals by the need to support a family. Throughout the years, he roamed North America sketching birds, taking whatever casual work he could to support his central mission, including road building, house painting, and as crew on a fishing boat. According to his great niece, Deborah Brasher, he once won $10,000 on a horse race which financed an extended trip to the Midwest.
In 1907, Brasher met the famous bird painter, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, at American Museum of Natural History, and they became good friends. Fuertes was very influential in the development of Brasher’s artistic range and technique. In 1911 Rex bought a 150 acre farm in Connecticut, the Chickadee Valley, with the $700 proceeds from a sale of book illustrations. Here, in 1928, almost 100 years after the publication of Audubon’s Birds of America, Brasher finished his paintings, which he considered the completion of the work begun by John James Audubon.
It was truly a magnificent survey of the birds of North America based on 44 years of dedicated toil and sketching in the field. Dwarfing Audubon’s previous record of 489 species, it illustrated over 2500 figures of birds on 864 plates, with birds in different states of plumage and development. Listed were 1200 species and sub-species of birds according to the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) Checklist of North American Birds. The accompanying illustrations of tree species and bird habitat were also an important contribution to the field.
After he had an estimate of $500,000 for the printing of his work, and in a manner which would not produce the colors with the accuracy desired, he made the monumental decision to hand color all the copies himself. It was a decision reminiscent of the great English bird Artist William Lewin, who produced 60 copies of his Birds of Great Britain, entirely hand done. After six months of toil, when Brasher had finished a hundred copies of the first volume, he realized that completion of the planned edition of 500 copies within his lifetime was impossible given his age of 60.
The edition was cut to around 100 copies, for which he had 95 subscribers at a cost of $2,400 for each set. Sadly, the Great Depression intervened and 60 cancellations ensued, though the subscription level gradually rose again to 75, and included many tycoons of the day such as William Boeing and Paul Mellon, the banker. The majority of the volumes were printed in collotype by the Meriden Gravure Co. a printer of black and white reproductions, with the photogravures made from the original plates then individually hand colored by Brasher using an airbrush and a complex stenciling process similar to pochoir. His niece Marie wrote the text, which was published by the New Milford Times. The Brewer-Cantelmo Company of New York, still in business, made the bindings in a three hole portfolio style and the work was assembled in a barn on the Chickadee Valley Farm. In fact, it was entirely a cottage industry of the type practiced by printers and publishers of the past, including Benjamin Fawcett, the great English publisher. It was only two years before his death that failing eyesight stopped his lifetime’s work and Rex Brasher died in 1960 at the age of 91 on his farm. There is no other American bird illustrator who has come even close to his monumental achievement and he surely ranks as not only one of the most gifted, but also one of the most underappreciated of all the great bird artists. We believe that he has yet to take his true place in the history of bird illustration.
Originally exhibited in 1932 at the English Book Shop in New York City, the State of Connecticut bought the Brasher collection for $74,000 in 1941 and today it is housed today at the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. His two grand nieces, Deborah Brasher & Melode Brasher reside on his farm and are involved in a fund raising effort to establish a museum to properly display his work.
The sheer magnitude of the task from which Rex Brasher never veered, the amazing industry, perseverance and genius he applied to his mission and the sacrifices he made to present to the world this amazing work have yet to be truly recognized. We consider it the culmination of all works that have passed before and certainly the greatest American ornithological work.