Each week our Collections Manager Rhian, brings you our ‘Rare Book of the Week’ on our social media accounts, too good to be lost in the daily deluge of tweets and Instagrams we wanted to bring you a round-up of some of our favourites. This week it’s the turn of Birds.
This weekend marks the annual RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch, the world’s largest wildlife survey. To celebrate this we’re doing a Rare Book Roundup of the ornithological books in our reference collections at the Leeds Central Library. Some of species shown will be too exotic to spot in your average Leeds back garden, but there will be some local species making an appearance.
‘Ornithology‘ (1678) by Francis Willughby was the first truly scientific encyclopaedia of birds and was published after his death by friend and collaborator John Ray. The aim was to see and describe every known bird, thought to be around 500 species. We now know there are than 10,000. ‘Ornithology’ contains 77 illustrations, including the vulture, flamingo and even the dodo which became extinct not long after publication.
This work was innovative and influential in shaping how living things were described and classified.
‘The Natural History of British Birds‘, Edward Donovan (1794-8) or to give it it’s full name.
“A selection of the most rare, beautiful and interesting birds which inhabit this country: the descriptions from the Systema naturae of Linnaeus: with general observations, either original or collected from the latest and most esteemed English ornithologists: and embellished with figures, drawn, engraved, and coloured from the original specimens”
Originally issued in monthly parts, each part carried two plates and accompanying text. Printed at a rate of one a year, after 5 years and 5 volumes the collection was considered complete. However, Donovan was not yet done and a further 5 volumes followed, numbers 6-10, published between 1816 and 1819.
‘British Ornithology’, George Graves (1811) includes studies on songbirds, game birds, owls and hawks, divers, waders, and sea birds. Graves mostly drew, engraved, and hand-coloured the 144 plates himself.
The entire book has been digitised by the Internet Archive project and can be viewed here https://archive.org/details/Britishornithol2Grav/mode/2up
Published in sections between 1827 and 1838, John James Audubon’s ‘The Birds of America’ would go on to become the most expensive book in the world, with first editions selling for over £7million. Audubon’s assistant would shoot the birds, while Audubon used wires to pose them in lifelike positions ready for painting.
The book consisted of 435 hand-coloured life-sized prints and as much as we’d love to boast holding an original copy in the special collections, we instead, will have to make do with our 1937 reproduction. But if it’s a local connection you’re looking for, that we can provide. Lady Isabella Herford, mistress of Temple Newsam House in the 1820s, was responsible for the beautifully decorated drawing room, using wallpaper gifted to her by the then Prince of Wales. It was onto this wallpaper that Lady Isabella pasted exotic birds, cut from her first edition copy of Audubon’s ‘Birds of America’.
First edition Audubon’s were also the goal of a 2004 art heist, planned by four American university students, the full story of that escapade is definitely worth a read.
Robert Maudie’s (1834) ‘Feathered Tribes of the British Islands’ is an 18th century guide, designed to help identify different bird species in Britain. Maudie was an avid reader from childhood and self-taught on many subjects through extensive reading of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He went on to become a newspaper editor and author.
Our next rare book is among the most famous and important bird books of the C19th. John Gould is described as the greatest figure in bird illustration after Audubon, and we are lucky to have the magnificent ‘Birds of Great Britain’ (1873) in our collections. This enormous 5 volume set was his most popular work and contains 367 images, and as Gould explains in the introduction ‘every sky with its varied tints and every feather of each bird were coloured by hand’.
Birds of Great Britain might have been his most popular book but his 6-volume set of hummingbirds, which we also have in the collection, is particularly beautiful. Gold leaf was used under the colour to produce iridescent feathers. Gould’s books really do need to be seen in person to really appreciate the details of the images.
Four our final item of the round up, we bring you much closer to home with Leeds’ very own William Eagle Clarke, a renowned ornithologist who became curator of Leeds Museums in 1884 before moving to the Royal Scottish Museum in 1888.
Clarke published many papers and books, including ‘The Birds of Yorkshire’ (1907). He also recognised how lighthouses could tell us more about the migration of birds and detailed his discoveries in ‘Bird Migration in Great Britain and Ireland’ (1896). Here at Leeds Libraries, we hold his diaries and manuscript notes which are full of wonderful observations about birds and their behaviour.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this round up of some the bird books that have featured inn our rare books Instagram selection, and good luck to all you amateur, and professional twitchers taking part in the Big Garden Bird Watch this weekend.
To access items from the Special Collections at the Leeds Central Library we would generally require at least 24 hours notice, one form of identification and also proof of address, i.e. a bill, bank statement or an official letter.