[United States. ca. 1850?]. Four individual sheets, three matted and one mounted on card. Some scattered foxing, affecting two of the watercolors. Generally very good. Item #WRCAM39961
Isaac Sprague (1811-95) was one of the most prolific and well-known illustrators of flora and fauna in 19th- century America. Stafleu & Cowan lists seven composite works, ranging from 1848 to 1891, that included Sprague's illustrations, in addition to his WILD FLOWERS OF AMERICA and FLOWERS OF THE FIELD AND FOREST, both published in 1882. He is particularly remembered for accompanying John James Audubon on his expedition up the Missouri River in 1843, aiding the master painter with ornithological sketches and drawings. The two first met on August 19, 1840, when Audubon admired the young artist's bird drawings. Audubon recorded the meeting in a journal entry: "Saw some very remarkable drawings of birds (far better than any ever made by the immortal Alexr- Wilson) by a young man named Sprague. Truly wonderful drawings, my dearest friends. But this person was out shooting and I did not see him. I however wrote a few lines on several of them the purports of which, I trust, will not displease him." The diary Sprague kept on this trip, in which he gives useful accounts of the settlements and topography of the Missouri River valley, is now held by the Boston Athenaeum. Sprague also illustrated several works by important naturalist Asa Gray, including Gray's BOTANICAL TEXT-BOOK and MANUAL OF BOTANY OF THE NORTHERN UNITED STATES. Gray's wife, the editor of his letters, wrote the following description, cited in McKelvey's BOTANICAL EXPLORATION: "President, then Professor, Felton...knowing Dr. Gray was looking for someone for his scientific drawings, recommended Mr. Sprague, and he began with the illustrations for the Lowell lectures and the new edition of the BOTANICAL TEXT-BOOK. Dr. Gray was delighted with his gift for beauty, his accuracy, his quick appreciation of structure and his skill in making dissections. Mr. Sprague was from that time his chief and almost only, illustrator for his books, both educational and purely scientific." The drawings are as follows: 1) "Blue Jay." Original watercolor, 12 x 9 3/4 inches. Matted. In very good condition. Depicts a blue jay, beak open, perched on a branch, with a focus on the detailing of the head and feathers. Light foxing, but colors remain quite strong. A fine, precise work. 2) "Robin and Holly." Original watercolor, 12 x 9 3/4 inches. Matted. Marginal chipping and tape stains, not visible under mat. Tanned. Good condition, and quite visually appealing. Depicts an American Robin perched on a holly branch, with holly leaves and berries in the background. 3) "Pine Grosbeak." Pencil drawing, 15 x 11 inches. Matted. In fine condition. A fine sketch of this western bird, labeled in pencil at lower left corner. 4) "Savannah Sparrow." Original watercolor, 5 x 4 1/4 inches. Mounted on card. Some soiling and foxing. Good. A beautifully detailed small drawing, with particular attention paid to the mottled coloration of the feathers. Although none of the works is signed, each has a provenance connecting it either to a Sprague descendant or to an early owner in Sprague's native Hingham, Massachusetts. The pieces were eventually sold through Goodspeed's Book Shop in the 1960s. On the whole, a remarkable group of original works by an important ornithological and botanical illustrator, acclaimed by no lesser contemporary naturalists than Audubon and Gray. McKelvey, BOTANICAL EXPLORATION, pp.834-36. STAFLEU & COWAN 12.635, 12.636 (ref). BM NATURAL HISTORY V:1993 (ref).