from American ornithology...
by Alexander Wilson

metal engraving/etching

Hill Collection — Early- to Mid-19th Century

American artists & authors

The "father of American ornithology," Alexander Wilson [1766-1813] , is well represented in the Hill Collection by beautiful copies of the first and second printings of the first edition of American ornithology, published from 1801 to 1814 in nine volumes, with a revised volume nine issued as a supplement in 1825.

The birds in the first edition were grouped and presented by Wilson in random order. Later Wilson's close friend and collaborator on the first edition, George Ord [1781-1866], produced a four-volume version of American ornithology (1828-1829) arranged systematically by species. At about the same time, Charles Lucien Bonaparte [1803-1857] prepared a supplementary four-volume American ornithology: birds not given by Wilson (1825-1833). Copies of the Ord and Bonaparte works round out the original editions of Wilson in the Hill Collection.

Later editions and reprints of Wilson's American ornithology appeared throughout the century, edited or presented mainly by Robert Jameson, William Jardine, and Thomas Brewer. Some early versions are represented in the Hill Collection, but all editions are available in one or more of the library collections at Cornell. Of special interest is the three-volume "Jameson edition", mainly because of the magnificent set of plates by Captain Thomas Brown [1785-1862], which were issued separately but designed to accompany the text of this small popular edition. Brown's Illustrations of the American ornithology of Wilson and Bonaparte (1831-1835), dazzles the eye, and a particularly lovely copy reposes in the Hill Collection.

Students of Wilson may also be interested in the Life and letters of Alexander Wilson, by Clark Hunter, issued in 1983 as volume 154 in the Memoirs series of the American Philosophical Society. There is a copy in the History of Science Collection, as well as circulating copies in the Mann and Olin libraries at Cornell.

Wilson's important contributions to American ornithology were eclipsed temporarily by the publication of the splendid bird art of John James Audubon [1785-1851] . Audubon's magnificent Birds of America, published from 1827 to 1838, presented 435 plates of birds in life size, engraved on copper and hand colored. This "double elephant" folio, with its groupings of colorful, active, related birds in correct natural settings, was a major departure from the stiff renderings of unrelated birds so characteristic of the period. Audubon was the first ornithological illustrator to work from fresh-killed specimens collected in the field and to capture the essence of life in his art. His influence and fame have continued to the present.

Many editions of The Birds of America have been published over the years, and many biographies of Audubon and discussions of his work have been issued. The Cornell libraries have comprehensive coverage of the works by and about Audubon, only a few of which will be mentioned here.

Cornell is particularly fortunate in having a beautiful set of the original double elephant folio of The Birds of America. The Hill Collection also includes the handsome seven-volume first octavo edition (1840-1844), as well as the second (1856) and third (1861) octavo editions. Also present is Audubon's five-volume Ornithological biography of 1831-1849 (i.e., 1839); Cornell's copy is a presentation copy signed by Audubon.

A modern publication of interest is a facsimile of Audubon's manuscript My style of drawing birds (1979), edited by Michael Zinman. In the Hill Collection, too, is an amusing small work of 1972, issued by the Caxton Club in Chicago and authored by Gordon R. Williams. Its self-explanatory title is Fantasy in a wood-block: or, What occurred when John James Audubon, the naturalist, visited with Thomas Bewick, the wood engraver, in the year 1827.

Other American artists & authors

At about the same time as the appearance of Audubon's Ornithological biography, another ornithologist, Thomas Nuttall [1786-1859], was issuing his two-volume Manual of the ornithology of the United States and of Canada (1834). Illustrated simply with woodcuts in the text, this careful, detailed study of land and water birds is considered the first American handbook on birds. The Hill Collection contains a first edition of both volumes.

While the two giants of American ornithology, Wilson and Audubon, dominated North American ornithology early in the 19th century, a great deal of important work was being carried on elsewhere in the world.



Online guide developed from:

Ornithology Collections in the Libraries at Cornell University: A Descriptive Guide
Revised Edition, 1999
Ithaca, New York
� 1999 Cornell University Library
Webpage last revised: 6/10/99 by jfc & clsb.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow
from The birds of America; from original drawings
by John James Audubon