Fine Books from a Distinguished Private Library

Fine Books from a Distinguished Private Library

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 19. Captain Thomas Brown | Illustrations of the American ornithology. Edinburgh, [1831]-1835, the dedicatee’s large-paper copy with superior colour.

Captain Thomas Brown | Illustrations of the American ornithology. Edinburgh, [1831]-1835, the dedicatee’s large-paper copy with superior colour

Auction Closed

November 28, 01:19 PM GMT


80,000 - 120,000 GBP

Lot Details


Captain Thomas Brown

Illustrations of the American ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte, Prince of Musignano. With the addition of numerous recently discovered species and representations of the whole sylva of North America. Edinburgh: Frazer & Co.; Dublin: William Curry Jnr. & Co.; London: Smith, Elder & Co., [1831]-1835


Folio (688 x 533mm.), engraved title, engraved dedication to David, Earl of Airlie, 124 hand-coloured engraved plates of birds after Thomas Brown, A. Rider, J. B. Kidd and others, engraved by Samuel Milne, James Mayson, Wm. Davie, R. Scott, W.H. Lizars, and others, 69 of the plates with slips correcting the numbering pasted onto the upper right corner of the plate area, contemporary green morocco, covers elaborately panelled in gilt and blind, raised bands, spine gilt in compartments with floral frames, turn-ins with gilt Greek key roll, gilt edges, extremities a little rubbed, spine lightly scuffed, a couple faint scratches to boards

THE DEDICATEE’S COPY, ON LARGE PAPER, and arguably the most desirable copy of one of the rarest large-format illustrated work on American ornithology: it belonged to the book’s dedicatee and is one of a very few elephant folio, large-paper, deluxe copies with additional hand colouring.

According to Faxon, the book, even as a “regular” copy, the book is “among the rarest [volumes] in ornithological literature.” Brown’s Illustrations was intended to accompany the first European edition of Wilson’s American Ornithology, published in 1831 at Edinburgh without illustrations. Faxon notes, “Brown’s book is not in any true sense an edition of Wilson and Bonaparte. It is composed partly of original figures, but in a large measure is compiled from the works of Wilson, Bonaparte, Audubon, Richardson and Swainson, and Jardine and Selby.” The work includes 161 birds not depicted by Wilson and Bonaparte and 87 plates re-engraved in a larger format than the originals. Brown also added 167 trees and shrubs (all of which are identified in the index) to the images. The plates are by some of the leaders in the field, including W. H. Lizars, who also engraved some of the earliest Audubon plates. In Faxon’s words, “As specimens of the engraver’s art these plates exemplify the best work of the then leading engravers of Edinburgh… That a very small edition of Brown’s work was published is evinced by its excessive rarity at the present time. The book was not of a character to meet any real want, and moreover it entered into competition with the great work of Audubon’s then publishing”.

Contemporary advertisements reveal that the work was published in folio, both coloured (at 15s per part) and uncoloured (10s 6d), as well as “a few in elephant folio, (same size as Selby’s British Ornithology) coloured” and priced 1 guinea per part. In his 1919 census, Faxon was able to locate just a single example of the elephant folio, being sold by London bookseller Walter T. Spencer, though it lacked six plates. Describing that copy, he observes that the plates “are coloured (especially as regards the landscape accessories of the water-bird plates) more skilfully than in the smaller folio issue”. The colouring is indeed more elaborate than the regular issue, with skies and clouds added in the backgrounds of many plates. We have been unable to locate a single elephant folio copy appearing on the market since that time

REFERENCES: Fine Bird Books, p. 82 (“very rare”); not in Anker or Zimmer; see also W. Faxon, The Auk, 20:236-41 and 36:626

PROVENANCE: David Ogilvie, 9th Earl of Airlie (1785-1849), Cortachy Castle book label; it is possible the Scottish-born Brown (1785-1862) came to know Ogilvie when he served in the Forfar and Kincardine Militia, achieving the rank of captain; the wealthy Ogilvie would have been a logical person to approach about subsidising this undertaking