The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the publication of some of the most beautiful natural history books ever printed. The publication of Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum in 1753 launched a revolution in the systematic organization of the natural world and established a common nomenclature. This gave fresh impetus to the study of the world around us. At the same time great voyages of exploration were setting forth, often with scientists and artists amongst the officers. They brought back seeds, skins, and specimens in abundance which whetted the appetite of the educated classes throughout Europe to see and know more. Of course the printing of these books was very time consuming and expensive. Copper, aquatint, or etched plates had to be made, then the resulting impressions coloured by hand to an exacting and uniform standard.
One of the most important of these naturalist publishers was Edward Donovan (1768-1837), An Anglo-Irish collector, who although he did not travel, amassed a vast collection which he displayed at his London Museum and Institute of Natural History.
His grandest work is his Natural History of British Insects (1796-1813), which established his reputation. A 16-volume work, bound as usual in 8 volumes, with 576 hand-coloured plates, this set really looks the part in its contemporary green morocco bindings. A particularly handsome work, this is as nice a set as you will find.
Following on from this, between 1799 and 1803, Donovan published The Natural History of British Shells. A very beautiful work with 180 hand-coloured plates, it is one of the finest of all British shell books.
In 1820 he published TheNatural history of British Quadrupeds, well balanced between domesticated and wild animals. The present set has a very distinguished provenance, bearing the Dumbarton Oaks bookplate of Mildred Bliss. She, along with her husband Robert, established a superb garden in Washington D.C. which they bequeathed to Harvard University.
Donovan’s final work was The Naturalist’s Repository (1834), again with 180 exquisite hand-coloured plates. This provides a superb survey of the natural world and is a fitting finale to Donovan’s publications.