by Robert E. Wrigley
Having collected and enjoyed natural-history books all my life, I learned decades ago that that I had to use some sober judgement regarding which ones I should acquire for my library. After all, there are definite limitations of budget, shelf space, and time to read. Relevant Nature books back in the 1950s and ‘60s were relatively uncommon compared to the enormous variety of topics being published at an astounding rate in recent times. With an overlapping interest in art and biology, the wildlife-art section has still managed to creep steadily along that area of my shelf, including those on dinosaurs and their only surviving descendants – birds. Many of these texts have such fascinating stories behind them – the background of the artists and the challenges they overcame, such as rugged expeditions, painting steadily for decades, securing funding (from jobs, patrons and advance sales), and all the intricacies of dealing with publishing firms and galleries. The skill, dedication, and sheer workload achievements of many natural-science artists of the past are often inconceivable.
One of these wildlife artists represented in my library is Rex Brasher (1869-1960), about whom I knew little until recently. In his massive two-volume magnum opus, entitled “Birds and Trees of North America,” he took on the challenge (without formal training) of preparing 875 watercolour paintings covering the 1200 species and subspecies of birds based on the contemporary Checklist of North American Birds (American Ornithologists Union), plus integrating 400 native trees and shrubs in the portraits. Both genders of birds as well as immatures were presented, in habitat, and depicting typical activities. In total, he painted 3000 individual birds (including now-extinct species); for example, eight Hairy Woodpeckers are illustrated, representing both sexes and six subspecies. This remarkable project generated over twice the number of bird plates produced by John James Audubon or Louis Agassiz Fuertes. The work was described as; “The most ambitious publication of colored plates of birds executed in this century,” by Sidney Dillon Ripley (famous ornithologist and Secretary, Smithsonian Institution from 1964-1984).
Rex Brasher’s first edition in 12 volumes appeared between 1929 and 1932; my two volumes were published in 1962 by Rowman and Littlefield Inc, New York, which sadly, for economic concerns, deleted numerous plates. With dimensions of 16 x 12 inches (41-31 cm) and weighing a total of 17.2 lbs (7.8 kg), this is definitely not a field guide, but truly wonderful books to enjoy at a desk. Turning page after page of these dazzling portraits becomes overwhelming, and it is hard to believe that one person could possibly generate such a body of work in their lifetime.
Rex Brasher began painting in his early teens, encouraged by his father Phillip (a Wall Street broker), who was also a keen naturalist and bird taxidermist. As the story goes, Phillip had made an appointment to visit John James Audubon in 1840, but upon travelling some distance and arriving at his home, he was rudely informed that Audubon was too occupied to meet him. Able to view into a back room from the porch, he could see Audubon painting a dead bird hanging from an easel. Upon hearing this tale, eight-year-old Rex resolved to become a better bird painter than Audubon. From that moment on, for rebuffed father and son, there was a definite goal on every trip into the countryside to observe and hunt birds for specimens, with young Rex first using a slingshot, then graduating later to a gun. Between his father’s bird collection (soon to be donated to Yale University), and Rex’s rapidly growing collection, the inevitable happened. One day, when Rex arrived home with fresh specimens of an Eskimo Curlew and Long-tailed Duck (at the time known as an ‘Old Squaw’), he was told in the most-direct terms by his mother that; “There will be no more birds in this house. Those are the last two you can stuff.”
In the ensuing years, Rex increased his knowledge of bird life and anatomy by absorbing every book on birds he could find in local libraries and shops. At first, understandably critical of Audubon’s work, he later developed an appreciation for the pioneer’s achievements in painting 489 bird images. For a number of years, Rex took on odd tasks (e.g., farmhand, hardware-store clerk, working on a fishing vessel, lithographer, engraving for Tiffany’s, and betting on horses) to finance his painting materials and field excursions. One of his winnings at the track netted $10,000, which more than covered his expenses for an extended trip to the Mid-West. Travelling by train and for months on foot, he visited every state and several provinces, laying for hours at a time in a blind, observing and sketching birds in their natural habitats.
Rex Brasher, self portrait
Once, when staying at a boarding house in Louisiana, the proprietor asked Rex; “Ah! you hunt les oiseaux. But why have you not the gun?” Rex responded; “I hunt with a pencil, not a gun.” In addition, Rex studied bird specimens at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and in 1907, he befriended Louis Agassiz Fuertes, whose skilled portraits of birds influenced his own painting. Suddenly dissatisfied with his early work, he twice burned all his paintings, numbering an estimated 700 canvases – the result of 14 years of labour. Interestingly, Rex later contributed numerous drawings for the renowned book “Birds of America,” (1936), which featured 514 bird portraits by Fuertes.
Over the years, his half-niece, Katherine Marie Louise, was a close companion for Rex at his remote homestead he called Chickadee Valley, near Kent, Connecticut. She was instrumental in keeping the home, inspiring his paintings, aiding his research, and typing up his notes. Then one day she remarked; “Well Rex, you have only eight more to do.” and he responded with; “Yes, and most of them are those damned sparrows.” The LeConte’s Sparrow was the last species in the massive collection completed in 1932, which all told consumed forty-seven and a half years of his life. Often working ten hours a day, with an occasional day off for chores and to greet visitors, he had succeeded in hand-colouring tens of thousands of individual bird reproductions to make 100 complete sets of his 12-volume books. What a remarkable display of passion and perseverance.
Rex was finally ready to publish his artwork and text, but the cost of printing all these colour plates was so prohibitive that no publisher would contemplate the venture. Not to be discouraged, Rex came up with the solution of having black-and-white images printed, and then meticulously hand-colouring (at 60 years of age) the many thousands of prints himself, using a watercolour airbrush and stencil technique that he developed, a task which took four years. After overcoming almost-insurmountable technical, printing and financial challenges, he and his partners were finally able to produce a limited edition of 100 sets. At the end of each of the books were added complete notes on species’ status, habitats, distribution, reproduction, and his personal observations.
Following several successful and prestigious exhibitions, including at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Rex sold the entire collection of original paintings to the State of Connecticut in 1941 for $74,900. The intention of the State was to build a new gallery to house the collection, but with the failure to raise sufficient funds during austere times, the collection was transferred to the University of Connecticut, and since 1988 has been located at the Thomas J. Dodd Center for Human Rights in Storrs, Connecticut.
Rex Brasher at his Chickadee Valley homestead.
For much of his life, Rex lived simply on his farm (without electricity), preferring to paint by natural light, and even chopping firewood to heat his home. He finally passed away at the age of 91. The Rex Brasher Association was formed in 2008 to promote broader knowledge about this remarkable person’s contributions to natural history, to investigate ways of exhibiting his collection, and to inspire a new generation of bird enthusiasts. I am hopeful that someday a publishing firm will decide to make his complete collection of bird paintings available in a new book – a testament to one man’s passion. I would love to see a copy sitting on my library shelf. My 1962, two-volume, abridged set has long been out of print, but it occasionally is offered for sale by book dealers.
A page from Rex Brasher’s biography (#86 page, 54)
Images supplied by Robert E. Wrigley
Brasher, M.E. 1962. Rex Brasher: painter of birds, a biography. New York: Rowman and Littlefield. 345 pp.