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Around Campus: Big Birds

osprey with fish
Courtesy of Rauner Special Collections

On Tuesday, February 10, 2004, in a custom-made case at Rauner Special Collections Library, the giant page of an oversized book revealed a beautiful illustration of redwing starlings. The page is one of 300 in three large "Elephant Folios" created by John James Audubon for his Birds of America series in the early 1800s. The expanse of the pages, approximately 29 X 40 inches each, allowed the painter and naturalist to depict many of the birds in life-size images. The books once belonged to Dartmouth son Daniel Webster, class of 1801.

"In this fast-paced MTV world, there's something very lovely about the slow unfolding of the Audubon folio, as we only turn one page every other week," says Sarah Hartwell, reading room supervisor.

The volumes represent the first three in a four-volume set of bird illustrations that Audubon created and sold to just a few hundred subscribers for $1,000 per set. According to Audubon's records, which may be incomplete, Webster paid only a small portion of the fee, which is probably why the subscription was not entirely fulfilled. After his death in 1852, the three folios were sold at auction in 1875 to a Massachusetts library. The library needed to raise funds in the early 1960s, and an anonymous donor purchased the folios for Dartmouth as a memorial to Andrew B. Foster '25, a former Foreign Service officer and Dartmouth administrator who died in 1963.

Many of the illustrations in the folios depict dramatic scenes and realistic poses-an osprey grasping a fish in its talons, a pair of common mockingbirds defending their nest from a rattlesnake.

"Not only are the volumes a wonderful part of Dartmouth's history through their connection to Daniel Webster, the quiet beauty of the images adds to the atmosphere in the reading room," says College archivist Peter Carini.

- By Susan Knapp

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Last Updated: 5/30/08