Prideaux John Selby

Prideaux John Selby (1788-1867) Illustrations of British Ornithology (1821-1846)

Selby’s Illustrations of British Ornithology is the only work to depict every bird in its actual size, other than Audubon’s Birds of North America. Selby’s Illustrations of British Ornithology was “the finest and largest book about British birds” (Christine Jackson, Bird Etchings). He was one of the two great masters of bird art of the nineteenth century.

“The cool, classical quality of Selby’s plates belongs to an age of elegance and could never have been achieved by the Victorian John Gould. Selby’s bird figures were the most accurate delineation of British birds to that date, and the liveliest. After so many books with small, stiff bird portraits, this new atlas with life-sized figures and more relaxed drawings was a great achievement in the long history of bird illustration.” (Christine Jackson, Bird Etchings).

Christine Jackson notes in her introduction to the catalogue of the now dispersed Bradley Martin collection of Selby water colors that, besides “collecting and preserving birds, Selby had observed them in the field, making careful notes of their habitat and habits. At his leisure, he also sensitively colored drawings of them. With this accumulation of practical knowledge, specimens, and some drawings, Selby embarked in 1819 on an ambitious project to publish [a work containing] the most up-to-date, life-size illustrations of British birds.”

Selby was not satisfied with the engravings of his drawings done by others, so he engraved the copper plates himself and the Scottish engraver, W.H. Lizars (who was Audubon’s first printer), was used only for the printing and the supervision of the coloring of the plates. “Selby etched his drawings on copper plates and then either took or sent the plates to William Home Lizars in Edinburgh. Either Lizars or one of his workmen took a pull [proof impression] from Selby’s plate and worked on any parts necessary to bring the plate to a very fine state of completion. Selby and Sir William Jardine both purchased their copper plates and etching ground from Pontifex of London, and their letters refer to the progress made in drawing and ‘biting’ or etching their plates. If they made a mistake or accidently over-etched a plate, they relied on Lizars to correct by burnishing to lighten it” (Jackson, Bird Etchings, pp.202-204).

This series was first issued by subscription in nineteen parts from 1821-1834 on elephant folio J Whatman paper. It was issued again in the 1840s and in the 1860s by Henry Bohn, also on J Whatman paper. The second edition (1841-1846) was published in London by Henry Bohn on J. Whatman paper and measured approximately 27” by 21.5”. The engravings were printed on Whatman paper and watermarked with the date.

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