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Birds, Bees and Blooms

A selection of natural history books from Special Collections

Whooping Crane from Audubon's Birds of America

Presented here is a selection of some of the wonderful natural history books now in the care of Glasgow University Library's Special Collections. As well as often being groundbreaking scientific texts, many of these books are beautifully illustrated, charting advances in graphic art from manuscript illumination through to woodcutting, engraving and etching. Acclaimed as outstanding works of art today, these labours of love were often costly to produce: behind many of them are stories of struggles to find specimens and financial ruin brought on by high production costs. Collected over the centuries and now preserved for posterity, highlights include:
  • a volume of John James Audubon's mammoth Birds of America, probably one of the most famous bird books ever produced and renowned for its huge format, dictated by Audubon's determination to depict life size all the known species of birds in North America
  • a copy of the first edition of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, the seminal work in which the controversial theory of natural selection was introduced to the Victorians
  • Micrographia by Robert Hooke, a seventeenth century text on microscopy renowned for its detailed illustrations
  • Robert Thornton's Temple of Flora, one of the greatest eighteenth century flower books
  • A Monograph of the Testudinata with outstanding lithographs of torotoises, terrapins and turtles by James de Carle Sowerby and Edward Lear
  • a French medieval manuscript on hunting and the chase with marginal illustrations of hawks

This virtual exhibition was originally devised to accompany a display organized for delegates attending the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting (Glasgow: September 10-12 2007).

bald eagle (plate 31)

John James Audubon: Birds of America
London: 1827-38
Sp Coll Hunterian Cd.1.1-4

This truly monumental work was published in eighty-seven parts between 1827 and 1838. Consisting of 435 plates in all, its huge format was dictated by Audubon's determination to depict life size all the known species of birds in North America. Born in the West Indies, Audubon was educated in France and early developed a taste for natural history and drawing; he moved to America in 1803. Although lacking formal artistic training, he studied birds in real life and built up his portfolio of brilliant drawings over a twenty year period.

Audubon sought a publisher for his massive work in Europe. An incredibly costly enterprise, it was to be produced on demand by subscription. William Lizars of Edinburgh had the first plates engraved, but - following production problems - Audubon had to find another (less costly) publisher in London for the bulk of the work. The plates are all engraved in aquatint and coloured by hand. Although the volumes are double elephant in size, many of the birds are posed in attitudes anatomically impossible in order to fit on to the pages. With assistance from the Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray, Audubon later produced a five volume work entitled Ornithological biography as a text to accompany the atlas of drawings.

white pelican (plate 311)

blue winged teal (plate 313)

hairy woodpecker (plate 416)

white headed, or bald, eagle (vol. 4: plate 36)
(Audubon's plate of the white headed eagle  bears a close resemblance to Wilson's earlier illustration)

Alexander Wilson: American ornithology
Philadelphia: 1808-1814
Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.2.11-19

Perhaps now lesser known than The Birds of America, this work actually predates Audubon by some years. It was the first bird book with coloured plates to be published in America, and was the most comprehensive and accurate to date.

Alexander Wilson was born in Paisley in 1766 and emigrated to America in 1794 where he eventually became a schoolteacher. Already interested in birds, he read the ornithological works of Catesby and Edwards in the library of his neighbour, the naturalist William Bartram. Aware of their shortcomings, he resolved to supplement them. With Bartram's encouragement, he began to collect specimens and make detailed observations.


The first volume of American ornithology appeared in 1808. The engravings were made from Wilson's original drawings; a sample proof of each was then hand coloured by him as a model for the colourists of the other copies, and he closely supervised their work. The accompanying text is written in a clear, natural style, presenting Wilson's own experiences with the birds and their characteristics as he saw them.

Seven volumes had been published by 1813, and the eighth was in the press when Wilson, weakened through overwork in his anxiety to complete his undertaking, died after a bout of dysentery. The work was completed by his friend, George Ord.

American crossbill
(vol. 4: plate 44)

barred owl; rough legged falcon; short eared owl
(vol. 4: plate 33)

winter falcon
(vol. 4: plate 35)

satin bower bird
(vol. 4 : plate 10)

John Gould: The Birds of Australia
London: 1848-1869
Sp Coll n1-a.1-8

A landmark of Victorian ornithology, The Birds of Australia originally appeared in 36 parts between 1840 and 1848. It is a massive work comprising eight folio sized volumes that depict and describe all of the 681 Australian bird varieties then known, many of them recorded by Gould himself for the first time. The birds are illustrated by beautiful hand coloured lithographed plates.

Known as 'the Bird Man', John Gould (1804-1881) made a huge contribution to nineteenth century ornithology. Both an outstanding naturalist and a highly successful businessman, he produced 15 major works (totalling nearly 50 folio volumes in all) containing some 3000 colour plates; these describe birds from all the main continents except Africa.

He was inspired to work on Australian birds by the many 'strange and unusual' specimens sent to him by his two brothers-in-law, who had emigrated to Australia in the early 1830s. He therefore relinquished his post at the Zoological Society and travelled to Australia in 1838 to record the 'habits and manners of its birds in a state of nature' - in country that was then largely unchartered. The expedition resulted in Gould discovering over 300 species; although many of these were later deemed to be subspecies, many of his bird names have survived to this day. He is credited with introducing the budgerigar to Britain; this name is a corrupted form of the Aboriginal 'Betcherrygah'.

For more images and background information on this book, see the July 2005 book of the month article.

grass finch
(vol. 3: plate 89)

lyre bird
(vol. 3: plate 14)

warbling grass-parakeet (aka budgie)
(vol. 5: plate 44)

(vol. 5: plate 52)

John Gould: The Birds of Great Britain
London: 1861-1873
Sp Coll n2-a.7-11

The popular five volume folio Birds of Great Britain was originally issued in London in twenty-five parts between 1863 and 1873. It contains 367 coloured lithographs.

John Gould has been called the greatest figure in bird illustration after Audubon. Gould was not directly responsible for the illustrations himself, although he supervised their production closely. His talent lay in drawing rough sketches, having an uncanny eye for capturing the characteristics and differences of each species. A keen observer, he had an extraordinary faculty for quickly recording in a rough sketch the characteristics of any bird that he saw. It was from these sketches that his artists made the beautiful finished drawings; these were then redrawn on stone to create the lithographs which were each finished by being hand coloured. Gould searched high and low for subjects for this work on British birds. The vast majority of the plates were sketched from freshly killed specimens; drawings were then made at a later date to be redrawn on stone by William Hart.


great auk
(vol. 5: plate 46)

roseate tern
(vol. 5: plate 71)

detail from margin of folio 13r

Guillaume Tardif: Art of Falconry manuscript
France: c. 1494
Sp Coll MS Hunter 269

The art of falconry has its origins in antiquity. For the medieval aristocracy, hunting with hounds or hawks was a consuming passion. A large literature of detailed, formal handbooks describing the procedures and rituals of hunting existed from the Thirteenth Century onwards. This manuscript compilation on the arts of hawking and the chase is a late example, commissioned by Charles VIII of France in around 1494.

Beautifully written and magnificently illustrated throughout by lifelike pictures of birds, this manuscript demonstrates the perfection of book design achieved in France in the late Fifteenth Century.

The pages shown here are from the falconry part of the work; this includes a section that describes the signs of health and sickness in birds of prey. Hawks were prone to endless ailments and much of the falconer’s skill lay in maintaining the condition of the birds. Descriptions of ailments and medications usually form substantial sections of the medieval treatises on the art.

opening of folios 27v-28r

opening of folios 30v-31r

blue heron (plate 79)

Eleazar Albin: A natural history of birds
London: 1731-1738
Sp Coll Hunterian M.3.18-20

This work contains 306 hand-coloured engravings by Eleazar Albin and his daughter Elizabeth. It is one of the earliest elaborately illustrated bird books.

Albin was a teacher of watercolour painting who developed an interest in natural history. He published, by subscription, an illustrated work on insects in 1720 before embarking on this ornithological work. The title-page boasts that the illustrations were drawn from live birds: Albin's specimens came from a variety of sources. According to Peter Osborne (ODNB entry on Albin), his penchant for cultivating connections with the aristocracy provided him with access to the large collections of exotic birds owned by the Duke of Chandos, Thomas Lowther, and the naturalist Joseph Dandridge; in the preface to the first volume, Albin appealed to his readers for more examples, asking that ‘Gentlemen … send any curious Birds … to Eleazar Albin near the Dog and Duck in Tottenham-Court Road’.

Perhaps not a great scientific achievement, Albin has been accused of being ignorant of ornithology and for catering to the requirements of the gentleman reader rather than of the serious naturalist; although accurate, his illustrations have been criticised for being stiff and lifeless. Nonetheless, as Osborne points out, this work is a great achievement in being one of the first profusely illustrated natural history books aimed at the general reader.

vulture (plate 1)

goldfinches (plate 70)

bird of paradise (plate 9)

microscopes and instruments
(plate 1)

Robert Hooke: Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses
London: 1665 
Sp Coll Hunterian M.3.1

The Micrographia is the most famous work written by Robert Hooke (1635–1703), a brilliant scientist who made outstanding contributions to a number of scientific fields. Hooke was the curator of experiments at the then newly founded Royal Society, and the results of his observations in using a compound microscope and telescope are recorded in this groundbreaking text. The work begins with an investigation of inorganic matter and goes on to examine vegetable and animal bodies; included are descriptions of minute features such as 'the edge of a razor', various silks, 'the fiery sparks struck from a flint or steel', snow, urine, the leaves of herbs, flies and fleas. As well as being the foundation for the study of microscopy, in this work Hooke proved to be ahead of his time in a variety of areas. Most famously, he used the word 'cell' for the first time in describing the structure of cork; he also explained the diffraction of light independently of Grimaldi's discoveries, and was the first to describe, for example, a bee's sting, the compound eye of a fly, and the structure of feathers.

The book is renowned for its magnificent plates, mostly drawn with the greatest attention to detail by Hooke himself. It was an immediate bestseller.


title-page and Royal Society imprimatur

of the eyes and head of a grey drone-fly
(plate 24)

plate 36

Maria Sibilla Merian: Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung
Nuremberg: 1679
Sp Coll Euing d3-b.19

Maria Sibilla Merian (1647-1717) was the daughter of Matthäus Merian the Elder, a Swiss engraver of some note; her maternal grandfather was the Dutch botanical engraver Johann Theodor de Bry, and  she was taught to paint by her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, another artist who specialized in traditional Dutch flower compositions. A self taught naturalist, she was a pioneering entomologist and great botanical artist.

Although Maria may now be primarily known as a botanical artist, her chief interest actually lay in moths and butterflies and their metamorphoses: as plants provided their nourishment, she recorded both the insects and their hosts with equal care. She was particularly fascinated by tropical insects, but this - her first book - is confined to European species. Its engravings depict caterpillars feeding on plants in flower or fruit. This is a copy of the first part only, published in 1679 and containing fifty engraved plates; it lacks the accompanying descriptive text.

At the age of 52, Maria embarked on an extraordinary expedition to Surinam (Dutch Guiana) with her two daughters; they spent two years collecting and painting insects and the plants on which they lived, successfully recording the exotic colours of tropical flowers and insects at a time when they were almost entirely unknown to Europeans. The resulting publication, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705) brought Maria lasting fame.


plate 1

plate 8

plate 46

beetles (plate 32)

Dru Drury: Illustrations of natural history. Wherein are exhibited upwards of two hundred and forty figures of exotic insects
London: 1770-1773
Sp Coll Hunterian M.3.8-9bis

Dru Drury (1725–1804) was a silversmith with a passion for entomology. His profitable business enabled him to spend significant amounts of money on his hobby and over a thirty year period he built up a famous collection of over 11,000 insect specimens. As well as collecting English insects, he acquired more "exotic" samples by persuading the officers of ships sailing to other continents and other travellers to collect insects on his behalf; for this they were paid 6d per insect 'whatever the size'.

Illustrations of natural history was published in three parts between 1770 and 1782. The illustrations were based on specimens in his collection. The hand-coloured copperplate engravings were beautifully executed by Moses Harris; he was responsible for illustrating several books of natural history by various authors, as well as his own works. Drury assures the reader in the preface that 'the utmost care and nicety has been observed, both in the outlines, and engraving. Nothing is strained, or carried beyond the bounds nature has set'.


butterflies (plate 18)

hornets and wasps (plate 39)

stick-insect (plate 50)

(table 38)

Moses Harris: An exposition of English insects ...
minutely described, arranged, and named, according to the Linnaean system
London: 1782
Sp Coll q512

One of the outstanding authors of entomological literature of the Eighteenth Century, Moses Harris (1730–c.1788) was interested in insect study from an early age. In this he was encouraged by his uncle who was a member of the first organised society of entomologists in England, the Society of the Aurelians. Harris wrote several works on insect life and, as an accomplished artist, was responsible for drawing, engraving, and colouring all his own work, maintaining at all times a high standard of accuracy.

An exposition of English insects is considered by many to be Harris's major scientific work. It incorporates an earlier treatise in which Harris established a classification based on wing venation. In the introductory preface to the work, Harris explains that although he has kept close to the outline of the Linnaean system of classification, he hopes that in his system the observer 'at first sight of an insect ... shall be capable of not only knowing the class it refers to, but at the same time to what order and section of that class, and this by the wings only'. The main text is preceded by a colour wheel to aid the reader in judging the 'variety of teints that adorn the several parts of insects'. This is a copy of the first issue of the second edition of this work. It contains some fifty hand-coloured engravings by Harris.

(table 23)

(table 30)


terrapene clausa (part 3, plate 2)

Thomas Bell: A Monograph of the Testudinata
London: 1832-1836
Sp Coll f276

A pioneering dental surgeon by profession, Thomas Bell was also an eminent zoologist who was an expert on crustaceans. He became Professor of Zoology at King's College in London in 1835 and was a founder member of the Zoological Society of London. His Monograph of the Testudinata is said to the first comprehensive account of tortoises. Bell aimed to describe all known species for the first time, including newly discovered varieties.

The work was published by subscription between 1832 and 1836; eight parts were produced, each containing five plates. Although highly acclaimed, its publisher ran into financial difficulties and production of the parts ceased before the work was completed. The unsold parts and unpublished plates were bought by the publisher, Henry Sotheran, and the work was eventually published completely in 1872 as Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles. This later book contains twenty more plates than the original monograph, ordered slightly differently.

The magnificent plates form the best collection of illustrations of tortoises, terrapins and turtles ever produced. Since many were drawn from living specimens, they are lifelike in both pose and colour. James de Carle Sowerby (1787–1871) made the drawings; from a formidable family of nineteenth century naturalists, Sowerby had helped to found the Royal Botanic Gardens but he is probably now better known for his many book illustrations. Edward Lear, now remembered for his nonsense verse, was responsible for producing the lithographs; the most accomplished lithographer of the time, he is credited with imbuing the tortoises and turtles depicted with their charming character and individuality.

For more images and background information on the Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles vesrion of this book, see the Special Collections book of the month article for Septmber 2007

testudo tabulata (part 1, plate 3)

young testudo indica
(plate 6 from Tortoises, Terrapins & Turtles (Sp Coll e80))

jellyfish: chrysaora cyclonota (frontispiece)

Philip Henry Gosse: A naturalist's rambles on the Devonshire coast
London: 1853
Sp Coll 2193

Perhaps better known today as the severe and deeply religious father of Edmund Gosse's memoir Father and Son, Philip Henry Gosse (1810–1888) was a popular Victorian author on zoology and natural history.

Interested in natural history as a child, in his early career Gosse held a variety of posts in Newfoundland, Canada, the USA and Jamaica: at all times, he took a great interest in his environment and endeavoured to professionalize his hobby by publishing work on his observations. Having married and settled in London, his prodigious output of writing resulted in a breakdown from overwork and he was advised to go and live in the country. He moved to Devon in 1853. He wrote A naturalist's rambles on the Devonshire coast the following year in Ilfracombe. The book includes twelve coloured plates, drawn and lithographed by Gosse and printed by Hullmandel and Walton. Highly artistic, Gosse was a keen and accurate observer; his paintings of British marine life have rarely been equalled. The book successfully popularised the science of marine biology, Gosse's enthusiasm for studying in the field shining through the text. It is unfortunate that his reputation as a serious scientist later suffered with the publication of Omphalos: in this text of 1857, Gosse refuted developmental theory, aiming to reconcile geology with the Bible's account of creation by arguing that the earth had been created with fossils to give a false appearance of age, just as Adam had been created with a navel.

actinia bellis, &c (plate 1)

coryne ramosa (plate 9)

actinia gemmacea, &c (plate 8)

detail of title from spine

Charles Darwin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection,
or The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life

London: 1859
Sp Coll 650

Published in 1859, this is a first edition of Charles Darwin's famous treatise on evolution and natural selection. It has been described as the most influential work of the Nineteenth Century. The book was a culmination of over twenty years of experiments and study, and was originally published as an abstract to Darwin's final results, which he did not believe would be ready before 1861. The work was purposely written in a non-scientific way, so as to make the findings as widely available as possible; it is easily understood by those with little or no technical knowledge of the theories of evolution. It was highly controversial at its time of publication as it contradicted the commonly held religious beliefs that all species were created distinctly from each other and by a greater power than man. Darwin himself openly acknowledges in his introduction that he himself used to entertain such views, until his research began to create other possibilities behind the origin of species; instead he states that he is now 'fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species.'



page 60: struggle for existence

frontispiece portrait of the author, Fuchs

Leonhart Fuchs: De historia stirpium commentarii insignes
Basel: 1542
Sp Coll Hunterian L.1.13

Leonhart Fuchs' De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (or, Notable commentaries on the history of plants) was first published in 1542. A massive folio volume, this landmark work describes in Latin some 497 plants, and is illustrated by over 500 superb woodcuts based upon first-hand observation. One of the German fathers of Botany, Fuchs' aim was to reproduce each plant from life. Primarily a physician rather than a botanist, he emphasised the pharmacological aspects of plants, although their characteristics, habits, habitats and forms are also outlined. Arranged alphabetically by Greek nomenclature, no attempt was made at a natural system of classification: although the descriptions help to distinguish one species from another, Fuchs relied on the illustrations to be used as the main means for identifying the plants. Over 100 species are illustrated for the first time, many of the specimens probably coming from Fuchs' garden in Tübingen; over a thirty-five year period, he grew many of the plants featured in the work, including the exotics.

Our copy of this great herbal belonged to the politician and statesman Thomas Belasyse, Lord Fauconberg (1627-1700). At some early point in its history, someone - possibly Belasyse himself - has obviously read through the book with care; apparently a keen botanist, pressed between some of the pages are the remnants of small samples of the plants described. This owner evidently also had access to a copy of Gerard's famous English herbal: his manuscript annotations reveal careful cross references to the entries in both, often citing Gerard's English names.

For more images and background information on this book, see the Special Collections October 2002 book of the month article.


cucurbita major and minor (pages 368-369)

digitalis purpurea (page 893)


Emanuel Sweerts: Florilegium
Amsterdam: 1614-1620
Sp Coll Hunterian X.1.12

The introduction of engraving as a technique for book illustration coincided with the proliferation of new plant arrivals in Europe from Turkey and the New World. A spate of ‘florilegia’ ensued; usually depicting the plants in an individual’s garden, there was also much copying of other artists’ work. That commissioned by Rudolf II of Austria of Emanuel Sweerts (1552-1612), a Dutch merchant and natural history dealer, was among the earliest. It was completed in 1609 and originally published in 1612; the copy here is one of many reissues. Engraving permitted more accurate detail than woodcut, with hatching, stippling and white gaps to give a three-dimensional effect and simulate reflexion from shiny leaves. Sweerts and Johann Theodor de Bry were the first to establish the convention of portraying lower stem with bulb or root alongside severed upper stem and flower in order to reproduce the plant life-size on the page.

This copy is an interesting example of a book that has been incompletely coloured by its original owner.


gentiana and campanula
(book 1: plate 14)

(book 2: plate 10)

pomegranates, oranges and lemons
(book 1: plate 40)


John Ray: Catalogus plantarum Angliae, et Insularum adjacentium
London: 1677
Sp Coll Hunterian L.7.9

Known as the 'father of English natural history', John Ray paved the way for Linnaeus in describing the structure and function of plants. Making the idea of the species his starting point, he maintained that all the characteristics of a plant should be taken into consideration when attempting to classify them.

Ray's love of botany was probably inspired by his mother who was known for her knowledge of medicinal herbs. He held a number of posts at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he kept a small garden: here he planted specimens that he had collected or which his friends had sent to him, and investigated the differences between specific varieties of plants and trees. Aware of the limitations of existing literature and expertise on the subject, he decided in the early 1650s to work on a catalogue of plant life that he had found in and around Cambridge; this work was published in 1660. Ray went on to explore the rest of Britain and Europe, often accompanied by his friend, the naturalist Francis Willughby. Together, they agreed to research the complete natural history of living things.

This is the second edition of Ray's catalogue of English plants, originally published in 1670 and dedicated to Willughby. It is meticulously thorough and noted for the medical and pharmacological notes which are included in the plant descriptions, highlighting Ray's belief that God created the plants for a purpose.


plate 1

plate 2

dedication to Willughby

allegorical frontispiece

Carl von Linné: Hortus Cliffortianus
Amsterdam: 1737
Sp Coll Old Library Bi1-a.3

This work, along with the author's Genera plantarum and Species plantarum, forms the starting point of modern systematic botany. Linnaeus established the principles of class, order, genus and species for all plants and animals. His botanical system was based mainly on flower parts, which tend to remain unchanged during the course of evolution. Linnaeus devised a method of twenty-four classes dependent on the number, union and relative length of the stamens: the classes were then subdivided into orders according to the number of styles. It was the simplest system yet devised and although artificial - as Linnaeus himself recognised - it had the great merit of enabling students to place a plant in a named category quickly and easily - and that at a period when the richness of the world's vegetation was being discovered at a rate that outstripped more leisurely methods of investigation. So successful was this method in practice that its facile application was the greatest obstacle to its replacement by the more natural systems that eventually superseded it.

Hortus Cliffortianus is a catalogue of the magnificent garden at Hartekamp in Holland belonging to the Anglo-Dutch banker, George Clifford. Linnaeus lived there for two years and wrote the text in nine months. The plates are engraved from drawings by the great German flower artist, Georg Ehret (1708-1770). Soon after its publication, Linnaeus returned to Sweden and in 1741 was appointed to the Chair of Medicine at Uppsala, exchanging this post a year later for the Chair of Botany.


collinsonia (table 5)

turnera (table 10)

buphthalmum (table 24)

Flesh-coloured Justicia (plate 3383)

Curtis's Botanical Magazine
Sp Coll Periodicals

One of the greatest scientific periodicals of all time, Curtis's Botanical Magazine was first issued in 1787 and is still being published to this day. It is the oldest periodical in existence featuring coloured plates, of which more than 11,000 have now been produced. The work of many acclaimed botanical artists, its volumes provide an exceptional pictorial record of floral fashions and plant introductions in Great Britain over the past two centuries. The journal was founded by William Curtis (1746-1799). Designed to portray ornamental and foreign plants, its first issue consisted of three hand coloured plates accompanied by brief letterpress descriptions; the plates were drawn 'always from the living plant, and coloured as near to nature, as the imperfection of colouring will admit'. It was an immediate success. Many renowned botanists and artists have been involved in the journal's subsequent production. In 1826, William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) took over the editorship. Hooker was Professor of Botany at Glasgow University (1820-1841) until becoming Director of Kew in 1841. A botanist of great ability, he was also a skilled draughtsman: the plate for Justica Carnea shown here is based on one of his drawings. The specimen from which the drawing was taken came from the botanical gardens in Glasgow.

Production of the magazine was plagued by economic difficulties throughout the nineteenth century thanks to the expense of the plates. In 1921 the magazine was saved from extinction when H. J. Elwes bought the copyright and presented it to the Royal Horticultural Society which agreed to continue publication. Incredibly, the plates were all hand coloured until as late as 1948 when a shortage of colourists forced the periodical to adopt photographic reproduction.

For more images and background information on this book, see the Special Collections October 2004 book of the month article.

persian iris (plate 1)

fleshy-flowered thibaudia (plate 5450)

Mr. Low's renanthera (plate 5475)

agaricus giganteus (plate 244)

James Sowerby: Coloured figures of English fungi or mushrooms
London: 1797-1803
Sp Coll Bower f6-9

James Sowerby (1757-1822) was an engraver and botanical artist who trained at the Royal Academy. His skilful work illustrates several natural history books of the period; he worked, for example, on William Curtis's Flora Londinensis, and drew the first plate for Curtis's Botanical Magazine (the Persian Iris, shown above). He ceased working for Curtis in 1790 upon beginning a collaboration with James Edward Smith to produce a complementary serial publication, English Botany. This was the first comprehensive account of the indigenous flora of Britain, published in 36 volumes between 1790 and 1814. It did not, however, describe British fungi and so Sowerby produced Coloured figures of English fungi to accompany it. Sowerby made 440 drawings and many models of fungi for this survey; the models were made expressly to aid identification of the edible and poisonous species, and some are still preserved to this day in the Natural History Museum. Sowerby also wrote the explanatory text. In the preface to the work, he enthusiastically encourages the more active cultivation of mushrooms and fungi, emphasising their usefulness in cooking and dyeing, as well as their ornamental properties.


agaricus velutipes (plate 263)

agaricus muscarius (plate 286)

tulips (plate 25)

Robert Thornton: The Temple of Flora
London: 1799-1807
Sp Coll e23

The Temple of Flora, the third and final part of Robert Thornton's New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus, is probably the most sumptuous and renowned of all great flower books. It contains 31 plates, produced by a variety of techniques; the impressions were printed in colour and afterwards finished by hand. No two copies are quite the same. This original elephant folio edition was originally issued to subscribers between 1799 and 1807 in parts that could later be bound together.

Robert Thornton (1768?-1837) studied medicine at Cambridge. Having developed a passion for natural history from an early age, he decided to spend his considerable inheritance in producing a splendid volume illustrating the Linnean system of classification. He employed the best artists to realize this vision, insisting that they should set their plants not against conventional plain backgrounds, nor against formal landscapes, but in the full splendour of their natural habitat. Thornton originally hoped that seventy coloured plates would illustrate the text, but subscription (at a time of great economic uncertainty) was disappointing. Ultimately, the expenses in producing the plates proved crippling. In order to stave off bankruptcy, in 1811 Thornton held a public lottery, offering as first prize the original paintings for the plates. Despite an extensive advertising campaign, the lottery failed to sell sufficient tickets and Thornton faced ruin. When he died in 1837, his family was almost destitute.

For more images and background information on this book, see the Special Collections book of the month article for April 2000.

night blowing cereus (plate 29)

superb lily (plate 36)

botanical illustrators at work (from Fuch's Great Herbal)

The following works have been consulted in compiling this virtual exhibition (refer also to book of the month articles where cited):

Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, 'Ray, John.' 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. [accessed 29 June 2007]

John Carter & Percy H. Muir Printing and the mind of man: a descriptive catalogue illustrating the impact of print on the evolution of Western civilization during five centuries London; New York: Cassell, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967

R. J. Cleevely, ‘Sowerby, James De Carle (1787–1871)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [, accessed 29 June 2007]

L. R. Croft, ‘Gosse, Philip Henry (1810–1888)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 29 June 2007]

John Cummins The Hound and the Hawk London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1988

Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department Birds in Books: an exhibition October 1973-January 1974 [anonymous unpublished typescript]

Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department Great Flower Books: an exhibition 15 March - 22 April 1977 [anonymous unpublished typescript]

Natural History Museum [Page on more information on Sowerby's tortoise] [accessed 29 June 2007]

Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt Catalogue of botanical books in the collection of Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt. Compiled by Jane Quinby. Pittsburgh: Hunt Botanical Library, 1958-61.

Scott Mandelbrote, ‘Ray , John (1627–1705)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2005 [, accessed 29 June 2007]

Robert Mays, ‘Harris, Moses (1730–c.1788)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 26 June 2007]

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