Robert Havell, Jr.

When John James Audubon arrived in London in June 1827, he was a very anxious man. His immensely ambitious publishing project was not going well. He had been drawing American birds for more than two decades, and now had completed several hundred life-size watercolors of them, executed on double-elephant sheets, 26 by 38 inches.

Robert Havell

Robert Havell, Jr. A Drawing by his Daughter Amelia. Courtesy Ossining Historical Society.

He intended to have these engraved and hand-colored in the same dimensions and published over several years as a limited, subscription edition. No engraver in America had the ability or the equipment to fulfill such an order, so Audubon traveled abroad to look for more capable professionals. He had believed that he had solved his problem when an engraver in Edinburgh, Scotland, agreed to undertake the first two sets of five prints each. But Audubon wasn't entirely satisfied with the quality of the first prints, and, more important, he feared that the engraver wouldn't be able to produce the entire work on schedule. Desperate to find a substitute, he went to London.

Audubon's best prospect was the firm of Robert Havell, Sr., who was not only one of the most able engravers in England, but who also had a special interest in natural history. His shop produced books and prints, and also contained a museum of stuffed birds and animals and various natural curiosities. Havell was immediately enthusiastic about Audubon's drawings, but felt himself too old, at 58, to take on a project that would take several years to complete. He offered to arrange for the coloring and printing of the plates and to find an artist to engrave them.

Havell consulted a member of the Colnaghi print-publishing firm, probably founder Paul Colnaghi, about possible candidates. Colnaghi showed him an uncolored proof of a landscape in Monmouthshire. Havell agreed that the artist was "just the man for me."

Colnaghi replied, "Then send for your own son."

Robert Havell, Jr., born November 25, 1793, was his father's eldest son. According to family tradition, Robert, Sr., had never been enthusiastic about his son's becoming an artist, hoping instead that he would enter one of the more prestigious "learned professions"—the ministry, say, or the law. But Robert, Jr., was a naturally talented artist, and successfully persevered. In 1827, at the age of 34, he was living and working independently. He had married Amelia Jane Edington (born about 1808), about three years before, and they had a two-year-old daughter, also named Amelia Jane.

Robert Havell, Sr., did indeed send for his son, and they were quickly reconciled. Robert, Jr., engraved and colored an example of Audubon's watercolors, and Audubon was overjoyed with the result. He immediately contracted with the Havell firm to produce The Birds of America. Robert, Sr., retired in 1830, and thereafter Robert, Jr., assumed entire responsibility for the work. It was published over a period of 11 years, and by 1838 there were four volumes of 435 illustrations, plus additional volumes of text issued soon after.

Audubon and Robert Havell, Jr., soon became not only successful professional collaborators, but also close personal friends. It was probably at Audubon's suggestion that Havell and his family resettled in America in the fall of 1839.

As Audubon had foreseen, Havell soon fell in love with the beauties of his adopted country, particularly the picturesque Hudson Valley. He began taking extensive sketching trips through the valley, into New England, and even as far as Niagara Falls, recording the landscapes that were being made famous by his American contemporaries, the Hudson River painters.

For some of these explorations, he used a pair of caravans–enclosed, horse-drawn wooden wagons that were the ancestors of modern trailers. One served as living quarters for the family, the other as a studio. Caravans were a common mode of travel back in England, but were rare over here, and they provoked so much prying curiosity that the Havells eventually abandoned them.

In his first years in America, Havell continued his former profession, engraving a few panoramic views of New York and other cities. But he soon largely abandoned printmaking for another medium entirely—oil painting. We don't know precisely why. Perhaps he was inspired by the works of the Hudson River School painters, then at the height of their popularity. His motives were apparently not economic, however. There is no evidence that he was in any serious need of money after he sold his London business. Furthermore, although he exhibited his paintings, he sold relatively few of the approximately 150 he is thought to have produced. In short, he appears to have devoted himself to painting mainly because he enjoyed it.

Equally mysterious is how he so quickly mastered the techniques of oil painting, which are quite different from those of printmaking or even watercolor. He isn't known to have studied formally, or to have associated himself with any professional mentor, but in a very short time he developed a strong and accomplished personal style. His brushwork was subtle and varied, his compositions sophisticated, and his coloring cool and harmonious.

His favorite subject was the Hudson Valley, and from 1841, that was where he chose to live. Again according to family tradition, he and his family were on a sketching trip when they happened upon a land auction in the village of Sing Sing (now Ossining). Half seriously, Mrs. Havell put in a bid for a five-acre tract there, but left before the sale was completed. The auctioneer overtook the Havells on the road to report that the property had been knocked down to them and to summon them back to take title (and of course to pay the bill).

Rocky Mount

Rocky Mount, Robert Havell's Ossining home.

The property was on a hill east of the Albany Post Road, with a commanding view of the Hudson. There the Havells built a substantial house facing the river, in the Italianate style fashionable before the Civil War. They called it Rocky Mount. Its most distinctive feature was an attic cupola, with double windows on three sides, which Havell used as a studio. Several of his paintings of the Hudson were clearly made from this vantage point. He also decorated the windowless northern wall with a panorama of the same vista. The wall panels were later removed and are now in a private collection, but the house itself has been demolished. The property on Havell Street is now occupied by multifamily housing.

The Havells had a second daughter while they lived at Rocky Mount—Marianna, born in 1847. They didn't settle permanently in Ossining, however; five years later, in 1852, Havell began to advertise the property for sale. In 1857 he sold it and moved to Tarrytown. Why he made this change is unknown, but the sale was among several real estate transactions he was involved in. He may simply have wished to realize a profit on property that had been cheaply acquired and much improved.

After renting for some years, Havell acquired a property on the Post Road in the middle of Tarrytown, opposite the intersection with McKeel Avenue. He built an even more imposing house, with two towers, in the ornate High Gothic Revival style, where he and his wife lived the rest of their lives. It has long since been replaced by a commercial building.

Both Havells were active citizens in both Ossining and Tarrytown. In Tarrytown they were generous supporters of the Washington Irving Memorial Episcopal Church (now the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception), and Robert was Senior Warden in his last years.

Robert and Amelia Havell died within a few months of each other in 1878, Amelia of a stroke on July 10, and Robert of old age on November 11. His obituary in the Tarrytown Argus included this account of his death: "[As] his last act in life he took the Holy Communion…, with his children joining in the responses, and at its close fell asleep and passed away quietly to his rest." Husband and wife are buried together at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Robert Havell, Jr., is primarily famous for his contributions to The Birds of America. In recent decades, however, the quality of his paintings has become more and more recognized. A number of his works are in museums across the country. One of the finest hangs at the Ossining Historical Society, a dramatic sunset view of the Hudson River north of Ossining, based on the vista from Rocky Mount.

Painted panel from Havell studio

The painted panel from Robert Havell's attic studio in Ossining.