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Birds, Part I: Early Birds in the Crystal Bridges Library

Wood Thrush

Wood Thrush, Robin, and Nuthatch, Wilson's American Ornithology, Vol. 1, 1808.

“Wood Thrush, Robin, and Nuthatch.”  Wilson’s American Ornithology, Vol. 1, 1808.

One of the most enjoyable aspects as Library Director at Crystal Bridges is learning about and sharing our amazing nineteenth-century color-plate book collection with guests. I often talk about the different genres in the collection; I share that we have botanical and materia medica books, trade publications, geological exploration illustrations, gift books, and naturalist books.  And then I conclude by asking guests what comes to mind when they think of nineteenth-century color illustration publications? Most often visitors answer “birds,” sometimes they say “ornithology,” but most often I hear “Audubon”!

But before John James Audubon (1785-1851) there was Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), a poet and naturalist who came to America from Scotland in 1794. Wilson had the ambitious goal of depicting every species of bird in North America, and yet he had a very small budget. He travelled America for over seven years before publishing American Ornithology, or, the Natural History of Birds of the United States: Illustrated with Plates Engraved and Colored From Original Drawing Taken from Nature, in 1808-14. The first true large color-plate publication printed in America, it combines text and images of birds as they existed in nature, totaling 76 hand-colored copper engravings. Unlike Audubon’s prints, and most likely as attempt to save money, Wilson’s prints typically portray small images of various specimens of birds compressed onto one plate. Also, Wilson worked alone, whereas Audubon had a large workshop.

Maryland Yellow Throat, Yellow-Breasted Chat, Summer Red Bird, Female, Indigo Bird, and American Redstart." From American Ornithology, Wilson, 1808.

“Maryland Yellow Throat, Yellow-Breasted Chat, Summer Red Bird, Female, Indigo Bird, and American Redstart.” From American Ornithology, Wilson, 1808.

Crystal Bridges Library has eight editions and supplements to American Ornithology. . . including examples where the species are rearranged in specific order and extensive notes are added by other naturalists. One such supplement includes material by Charles Lucian Bonaparte. The young nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte had moved to America after the collapse of his uncle’s reign and had demonstrated a talented calling for ornithology. Each Wilson publication is unique in its own way and contributes much to the development of early bird illustration in America. To read more about Alexander Wilson see the new biography soon to be in Crystal Bridges Library: BookAlexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology by Edward H. Burtt Jr. and William E. Davis Jr. Belknap Press, June 14, 2013

That’s it for Early Birds. The Audubon family and the complicated story of their great contributions to ornithology will be touched upon in the following Bird Blog: Big Birds.