AE Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - August - 2014 Issue

Natural History as Art from Shapero Rare Books

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Natural History 2014.

Shapero Rare Books has issued a detailed and heavily illustrated catalogue entitled Natural History 2014. With 180 pages devoted to 60 items, descriptions are thorough, images numerous. Naturally, these are items deserving of such complete treatment. They are important. While this is certainly not a collection generally labeled as “book arts,” these are items whose illustrations are works of art. Beauty runs through their pages as clearly as information. Here are some samples of these fine works.

 

Among all of the members of the animal kingdom, none has garnered quite the artistic reputation within the book world as birds, thanks in no small part to one John James Audubon. We start with a natural history book that is not limited to birds, nor even to animals, yet it is one of major importance when it comes to illustrations of birds: The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands; Containing the Figures of Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Plants... This is the great work of English naturalist Mark Catesby, who twice spent lengthy visits in southern North America between 1712 and 1726. This first edition was published in parts (1729-1743 with later additions through 1771). Catesby did not have the typical university training, but learned much on his own, visited America, and brought back numerous specimens to be viewed by others. He was artistically skilled, and later perfected these skills so as to create his own illustrations. In time he even hand-colored the 220 plates himself, a total of 34,320 plates in the 156 sets. While Catesby presented many types of fauna and flora, his first publication of illustrations of American birds earned him the title of “the father of American ornithology.” He was the first to place his birds in natural settings, rather than having them look like stuffed animals. Item 7. Priced at £400,000 (British pounds, or roughly $686,260).

 

Audubon was certainly the greatest illustrator of American birds, but for England and several other lands, that honor goes to John Gould. Item 1 is a magnificent collection of Gould's bird books (plus one of mammals) published between 1832 and 1887. Gould was an ornithologist and great artist, his work prolific through a 50-year career. He illustrated birds of his native England, as Audubon did of America, but his work extended far beyond his home turf. The collection not only contains Birds of Great Britain, but of Europe, Asia, Australia, New Guinea, the Himalayas (his first) and various parts of the world, and includes his books dedicated to toucans, partridges, hummingbirds, and trogons. The twelfth book is his Mammals of Australia. All are first editions except the one on trogons, that being the greatly expanded (including 12 new species) second edition which Gould described as “in reality a new publication” as all plates were redrawn. Compiling a complete collection, especially in such exceptional condition, of Gould's work would be difficult today. £1,500,000 (US $2,575,000).

 

Next we turn to John James Audubon, but not to his birds. Unlike Gould, Audubon produced only two great works. Having completed his book on birds, Audubon took on American mammals. The result was The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, published from 1845-1854. This first edition of Quadrupeds was like his Birds, an oversized (elephant folio) collection of magnificent colored drawings of American beasts, many of which would be at best obscure to readers back east. This work Audubon would co-author with Rev. John Bachman, a close friend and later father-in-law of both of Audubon's sons. Bachman was also an expert on mammals, allowing him to provide the text while Audubon drew the illustrations. However, Audubon's eyesight and memory would dim as the project proceeded, leaving it to those two sons to complete the work. Item 3. £400,000 (US $686,260).

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