Green tail’d Humming Bird

Green tail’d Humming Bird
from A selection of the birds of Brazil and Mexico
by William Swainson

Hill Collection — Early- to Mid-19th Century

British authors & artists

Between 1820 and 1832 William Swainson [1789-1855] , produced two series of three volumes each of his Zoological illustrations. This work marked the beginning of the use of lithography in bird book illustration and opened an era of fine hand-colored bird books. Zoological illustrations covered "new, rare and interesting animals, selected chiefly from the classes of ornithology, entomology and conchology," and the lithographic plates were drawn and printed by Swainson himself. A complete set of both series is part of the Hill Collection.

Swainson was also responsible for preparing the lithographic plates, classification, and synonymy for part two of John Richardson's Fauna boreali-americana (1829-1831), describing birds of North America north of the forty-eighth parallel. The Hill Collection contains an attractive copy of this Richardson and Swainson monograph. Also present is a copy of Swainson's A selection of the birds of Brazil and Mexico (1841), which covered Swainson's collecting trips to the New World early in the century.

Swainson was particularly interested in systematics and spent much of his ornithological career studying and devising classification schemes. His two-volume On the natural history and classification of birds (1836) and his Natural arrangement and relations of the family of flycatchers, or Muscicapidae (1838) reflect his absorption in the relationships of birds to each other and the natural world.

John Gould [1804-1881] was a figure of enormous importance in the world of British ornithology. His life, work, and influence spanned most of the 19th century. An ornithologist, artist, and businessman, Gould was responsible for the publication of some 3,100 brilliantly hand-colored lithographs depicting birds from all over the world.

Recognizing his own artistic limitations, Gould hired some of the foremost artists of the day to carry out his designs and sketches. Among them were Joseph Wolf, Edward Lear, and H. C. Richter. His wife, Elizabeth, learned the art of lithography and skillfully transferred her husband's sketches onto stone until her early death at age thirty-seven.

As volume after volume appeared, the development of Gould's sense of composition and design was evident. Backgrounds varied in complexity and type, but increasingly during his lifetime the colored plates showed lively studies of the birds, and included many eggs, nests, and chicks, with natural and detailed foregrounds. More than anyone else, Gould was responsible for the fact that the 19th century brought the art of hand-colored bird illustration to a height of beauty that has probably never been surpassed.

The Hill Collection is rich and virtually complete in the works of John Gould. Particularly impressive is the magnificent matched set of Gould's major folio volumes, which forms the centerpiece of the Gould holdings at Cornell. Included in this set is a work that probably represents the peak of Gould's art, his A monograph of the Trochilidae, or family of humming-birds (1861-1887), issued in five folio volumes plus a supplement. The iridescent splendor and sense of motion captured in the plates is overwhelming.

Another interesting item in the collection is a handsome copy of Gould's Icones avium, or figures and descriptions of new and interesting species of birds from various parts of the globe (1837-1838), which had belonged to the Gould family. In the History of Science Collections is part three (1838-1841) of Charles Darwin's The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. The descriptions and designs for the fifty hand-colored plates were the work of Gould himself, and the plates were executed by his wife, Elizabeth.

In 1893 Richard Bowdler Sharpe [1847-1909] published An analytical index to the works of the late John Gould, a folio volume containing over thirteen thousand references as well as a biographical memoir of Gould. A copy of this important reference work is part of the Hill Collection.

Other British artists & authors

The works of Thomas C. Eyton [1809-1880] are indicative of the early 19th-century transition from the art of engraving to that of lithography for bird illustrations. Eyton's History of the rarer British birds (1836), illustrated with woodcuts, was issued to supplement Thomas Bewick's History of British birds. In 1838 Eyton published a definitive work on ducks called A monograph on the Anatidae, or duck tribe, which included six fine hand-colored lithographs by Edward Lear [1812-1888] among a number of uncolored plates and text figures. Copies of both works appear in the Hill Collection, as does Eyton's much later anatomical study entitled Osteologia avium; or a sketch of the osteology of birds (1867), with the first supplement of 1869.

An important exploration report, appearing in 1839, was the story of Captain Frederick W. Beechey's search for a northwest passage through North America. Entitled The zoology of Captain Beechey's voyage, this work was significant for its discoveries in the Arctic, in California, and in the Pacific islands. Nicholas A. Vigors [1785-1840] prepared the section on ornithology, which contains colored plates by George B. Sowerby.

In 1852, shortly before his death, William Macgillivray [1796-1852] completed his well-researched History of British birds (1837-1852). Very detailed and accurate as to avian anatomy and habits, this illustrated natural history included all known bird species in Great Britain. The set of five volumes was published over a fifteen year period and today adds depth to the many 19th-century studies of British birds which grace the Hill Collection.

An interesting mid-century publication in the Hill Collection is Sir William Jardine's Contributions to ornithology (1848 to 1853). This work was issued in parts by subscription and is regarded by some as the first British periodical devoted to ornithology. Jardine, besides serving as editor, contributed much of the content, along with such well-known ornithologists as T. C. Eyton, John Gould, Philip L. Sclater, and others. Charming hand-colored plates, executed for the most part by Jardine's daughter, accompany the texts.

As ornithologist after ornithologist gathered detailed information and created new systems of classification and nomenclature, the number of genera names recorded reached more than 2,400 before the middle of the 19th century. George Robert Gray [1808-1872], who was in charge of the bird collection of the British Museum from 1831 until his death, attempted to bring some order to this array of genera. His important, fundamental, and beautifully illustrated Genera of birds issued in three volumes from 1844 to 1849, became a standard work of reference throughout Europe. A fine copy reposes in the Hill Collection.



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.

[Pintail] Dafila Urophasianus
printed by C. Hullmandel.

[Pintail] Dafila Urophasianus printed by C. Hullmandel.
from A monograph on the Anatidę or duck tribe
by T. C. Eyton