O ver the years, the cognoscenti have been beguiled by rumours of a collection of wonderfully-illustrated natural history books, assembled by just one man. Over the years, these stories have become so fabled, that the very idea itself of such a collection actually existing, has almost been forgotten. Many people I’ve spoken to about it have expressed doubt as to whether it indeed ever existed?
And even if such a library had once existed, it would be reasonable to suggest that by now, it would be unlikely be intact. Rumour had it, amongst fellow natural historians and antiquarians, that the collection featured legendary names such as Audubon, Gould or Redouté, along with a host of less-celebrated but equally important and exciting figures in the evolution of natural history literature.
But now, the collection itself from the library of Henry Rogers Broughton, 2nd Baron Fairhaven, has emerged from the shadows after sixty years of obscurity. And not only does it actually exist, but it is absolutely, everything that could have been hoped for. Indeed, it is finer and more comprehensive than the speculation over the years hinted at! In terms of sheer beauty, rarity and intrinsic value, it is almost without parallel. And as far as single owner collections are concerned, perhaps only the celebrated Bradley Martin library sold by Sotheby’s New York in the late 1980s bears comparison.
The Library of Henry Rogers Broughton, 2nd Baron Fairhaven Part I
So how did the collection actually come into being?
It was assembled by Henry Rogers Broughton, the 2nd Baron Fairhaven (1900 –1973) between 1927 and 1960. We know these dates, because Henry kept meticulous records of where and when he made his acquisitions. In 1966, he had succeeded the Baronetcy, on the death of his older brother. Their story is a curious one. Although of humble background, their grandfather had become incredibly wealthy during his time in the USA, where he somehow fell into company with John D. Rockefeller. By 1909, he was reputed to be worth an astonishing (for those days) $100 million. Much of their grandfather’s wealth passed to the two brothers, and they spent it wisely and with a good deal of generosity. Paintings and books were among Henry’s obsessions and thanks to his grandfather’s bequest, Henry indulged these interests to the full.
The scope and wonder of the entire collection is remarkable - it is difficult to choose highlights. Some items are of great value, others are worth more modest sums, but all are, in their own way, tremendous treasures. Each work was selected for its richness of zoological or botanical illustration, as well as for its importance in the development of these sciences. Meticulously illustrated, with hundreds of pictures, painstakingly coloured by hand, the books show flowers, fruits, birds and mammals in all their wonder. The lavish antiquarian bindings are a fitting match for the splendour and quality of the contents within each volume.
"The lavish antiquarian bindings are a fitting match for the splendour and quality of the contents within each volume..."
Although the vast majority of the library consists of works from the 18th and 19th centuries - the golden age for fine books connected with the natural world - one of the standout items in the collection dates from an earlier time. This is De Bry’s legendary Florilegium, made during the 1640s.
Many of the early works are considered ground breaking contributions to natural history literature, both in terms of content and the skill involved in their production. The two-volume Natural History Of Birds for instance, written by Eleazar Albin, dates from the 1730s and is not only a thing of beauty but also truly revolutionary for its time. So too were his companion volumes, A Natural History Of English Insects and A Natural History Of Spiders. Virtually contemporary with Albin’s books is the spectacular early work on American natural history, Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas (1731–1743). This two-part set contains 220 hand-coloured engraved plates (the original watercolours for which are kept at Windsor Castle) and the work has acquired an almost mythical status.
Another series of books from the 18th century that served as highly influential to generations of natural historians is Count Buffon’s Histoire Naturell des Oiseaux (1771 – 1786). It was first published in Paris in ten volumes just a few years before the Revolution. The gorgeous series contains hundreds of hand-coloured plates and remains today one of the cornerstones of ornithological literature. A magnificent set is included in this collection.
Among the sale’s flower books is Johann Dillenius’s extraordinary Hortus Elthamensis, a large-folio published in 1732 in two volumes, featuring 325 coloured plates. Not only was this tome a landmark publication, but it’s remarkable to consider that the research was based on the plants in a single garden, owned by renowned botanist William Sherard of Eltham, who had cultivated a unique collection of uncommon and rare plants.
Nearly 100 years later, Samuel Curtis's Monograph Of The Genus Camillia was published, an exquisite work with aquatints from drawings made by Clara Pope.
As the 19th century print technology progressed, books with sumptuous colour plates, particularly of birds, came into their own. The celebrated John Gould produced his monumental series of ornithological works on species from all continents. These massive volumes are represented here, including his most sought-after work, The Birds of Australia (1848 – 1869). In many respects, it was the book that truly launched him to fame and fortune. Having begun life as a taxidermist, he quickly realised that there was more glory (and more money to be made) in producing fine bird books. So he daringly travelled to Australia with his artist wife to gather material for this truly great work, and indeed, such was his success, he never looked back.
The auction also contains a number of well-known, and not so well-known, books featuring birds of paradise. There is Gould’s own Birds of New Guinea (1875–1888) and Richard Bowdler Sharpe’s wonderful Monograph of the Paradiseidae (1891–1898). Of perhaps equal beauty and importance is Daniel Giraud Elliot’s similarly titled Monograph of the Paradiseidae (1873).
No mention of the collection is complete without bringing up the great work on the mammals of North America, by John James Audubon. Whilst not as well known as his great work on birds, it is still one of the milestones of zoological literature. Similarly, Redouté’s marvellous flower book of the 1820s and 30s, Choix Des Plus Belles Fleurs, is also worthy of singling out for special praise.
Then there are those items that are truly unique. A delightful collection of pictures by the Victorian animal painter Joseph Wolf is included in the sale, incidentally, the greatest number ever by Wolf ever presented as one lot. Also, there are several albums of highly-coveted Indian School watercolours of birds and plants from the early 19th century.
Finally, at the heart of the lots and stories in this sale is an issue close to my own heart – the twin matters of endangered species and actual extinction.
These subjects now receive enormous attention and several of my own books focus on them. Yet these themes were also clearly of concern to the Baronet himself as the Fairhaven collection demonstrates. Most relevantly, perhaps, there is a fine copy of Walter Rothschild’s celebrated work Extinct Birds (1907), a title that speaks for itself. Naturally there are any number of books in the collection from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that contain wonderful and revealing images of species that are now lost and in some cases, the pictorial evidence contained in books by Gould and so many others is all that remains.