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British Bird Books

British Bird Books Shapero Rare Books
This week, Julian MacKenzie invites you to delve into the captivating world of British bird books, where you will find the celebrated works by John Gould, Francis Willughby, Thomas Bewick and many more.
British Bird Books Shapero Rare Books

I was in my garden this bright sunny morning (albeit a bit chilly) watching a great spotted woodpecker tucking into a coconut shell, and realised that we are now in meteorological spring – a perfect time to delve into our stock of British bird books.

The best starting point is of course Francis Willughby’s pioneering book, The Ornithology, 1678. Willughby thought it possible to describe every species of bird in existence. Unfortunately he thought three were only about 500 species rather than the 10,000 or so we now know to exist, nevertheless his scientific approach was ground-breaking for the time and much of his classification was used wholesale by Linnaeus for his classification of species. Originally written in Latin, it was translated into English by another great naturalist, John Ray. The copper plate illustrations are a little naïve but they have a certain charm and in this case the text is really the thing.

A hundred years later Thomas Lord produced a very different book, Lord’s entire new system of ornithology, 1791-96. Lord’s aim was to show the various birds life size if possible. It relied upon subscription, but the project ran out of steam towards the end and very few copies survive. Of those that do, most do not have the theoretical maximum number of plates (114). Ours is in the upper cohort with 112 and in fact some bibliographies call for just 111 illustrations in a complete set. The illustrations are very delicate, and it is a pity that the book is not better known.

Around the same time as Lord was publishing his book, Thomas Bewick was producing something completely different. Modest in size, A history of British birds, 1797-1804, was the perfect vehicle to display Bewick’s superb wood-engravings which include vignettes of rustic scenes as well as birds. Masterpieces of the engraver’s art they capture a bucolic world that was disappearing under the advance of the industrial revolution.  The present set, handsomely bound by Riviere, is accompanied by Bewick’s other masterpiece, A general history of quadrupeds, 1800.

An essential part of life for the wealthy in Victorian England was ‘the shoot’. The development of the shotgun had made this a simpler task than in the days of muzzle-loading, and combined with the new style of driving game birds towards the guns, the whole thing took off on a huge scale. This encouraged the publication of specialised books on game birds. In 1855, Beverley Morris published British game birds and wildfowl. Beverley’s brother, Francis, was also an ornithologist who was to achieve fame as the author of A history of British birds, the most popular of Victorian bird books. Beverley’s monograph was far more specialised but still went through numerous editions. The copy we offer is a superbly bound first edition with the plates clean and fresh.

The apotheosis of the game bird book is Edward Booth’s Rough notes on the birds observed during twenty-five years shooting and collecting in the British Islands, 1881-1887. Booth not only shot the birds but stuffed them displaying the specimens against their natural surroundings. It is these specimens that were used in the 3-volume book with 114 hand-coloured lithographs. The collection of specimens is now in the Brighton Museum.

The most renowned of all British bird books is John Gould’s The birds of Great Britain, 1873. Gould was far more than just an author. A talented artist, a publisher of discernment, but above all an entrepreneur who managed to publish a succession of very luxurious, very expensive monographs over a fifty year period. He employed the finest artists such as Edward Lear on his books and in the Birds of Great Britain, one of his final publications, worked for the first time with the outstanding German artist, Joseph Wolff. The book is a success on every level, Wolff’s art, shown in the 367 hand coloured lithographs is superb, and Gould felt confident enough to show more fledgling and nest scenes than hitherto. The present copy is as it should be in full green morocco, and without blemish.

Discover more: Birds and Ornithology 

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Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

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