John James Audubon (1785-1851) may be the most famous wildlife illustrator of all time. Until recently, his first published illustration, of a running grouse, was missing. Historians had been hunting for that illustration for over half a century. The image of the grouse was finally tracked down by Robert Peck from the Academy of Natural Sciences, and by Eric Newman first author of an article in the Journal of the Early Republic.
In 1824, Audubon drew a running Heath hen (a subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken) for use in a bank note. However, no bank notes of the time were found that contained that image. The team of researchers traced Audubon’s drawing to the engraver Gideon Fairman, and from him finally to some bank notes samples held in a private collection. The bank notes hadn’t been discovered earlier because they’d been made years later, not at the time Audubon handed his picture over to Fairman.
Finding the image was important to both historians and biologists. The former were able to better understand Audubon’s early emergence as the preeminent natural illustrator, and the latter had a glimpse of a bird that has been extinct since about the time Audubon drew it.
This is a detail of Audubon’s running grouse (Heath Hen) vignette from a Fairman Draper Underwood & Co. sample sheet. The image was discovered by an Audubon authority from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and by a numismatic historian from St. Louis.
Credit: Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society