British Birds: Land Birds

3.    The History of British Birds: Land Birds

The great success of The General History of Quadrupeds encouraged Bewick to turn his attention to a similar work on birds. Sidney Roscoe has pointed out that the idea of producing a work on birds dated back to the spring of 1786, just a few short months after he had begun engraving the blocks for Quadrupeds. A cautious man, Bewick did not really turn to the project until the rapid sales of the first editions of Quadrupeds.

White-tailed Eagle (Immature)Sea Eagle, 1791, wood engraving, 11.3 x 8.6 cm, EAG 90.40.012

Bewick had access to a number of other books on natural history, among them W. Smellie's translation of Buffon (1781-85), and the works of Thomas Pennant. He had no doubt already consulted Pennant's two volume History of Quadrupeds (1781), and he no doubt found much of use in the Genera of Birds (1773), as he did in John Latham's six volume A General Synopsis of Birds (1781-85). For the present work however, Bewick had determined "to copy nothing from the Works of others but to stick to nature as closely as [he] could," as he wrote in his Memoir. He did many drawings from stuffed specimens at Wycliffe during a stay of almost two months in the summer of 1791, confiding at one point that he done so many drawings of birds that he was "tired out and wish[ed] it was over." Upon his return to Newcastle, he began engraving from the drawings of birds, but as he states:

I had not been long thus engaged 'till I found the very great difference between preserved Specimens & those from nature, no regard having been paid at that time to place the former in their proper attitudes, nor to place the different series of the feathers, so as to fall properly upon each other. This has always given me a great deal of trouble to get at the markings of the dishevelled plumage & when done with every pains, I never felt satisfied with them. I was on this account driven to wait for Birds newly shot, or brought to me alive, and in the intervals employed my time in designing & engraving tail pieces or Vignettes.

A supply of birds was made available to him by his friends who were officers of the Fourth Dragoons as well as by many other people who were interested in the project. As a result, many birds were sent to him "from various parts of the Kingdom," and such specimens continued to be sent to him throughout his lifetime. These were often included in the revised editions.

Bewick's original intention was to publish a General History of Birds, but he soon realized that such a project was too great in scope. Among the birds Bewick drew and engraved at tunstal's Museum at Wycliffe in 1791 were a number of "foreign birds." In the brief foreword to the 1800 edition of the Figures of the British Land Birds, published without text, Bewick noted the addition of these birds "which were originally intended for a General History of Birds, but the design, comprehending a work of too great magnitude, was laid aside."

The first edition was ready in September of 1797, but a disagreement soon arose between the partners, Beilby and Bewick, since the former was now claiming to be the "author" of the work. This offended Bewick who had contributed as much to the text. The result was that Bewick would eventually purchase Beilby's interest int he work and the partnership was dissolved in January of 1798.

The History of British Birds, Volume I, containing the "History and Description of Land Birds," was published a number to times during Bewick's lifetime, and the differences in the various editions, as well as their contents can be examined by clicking on one of the edition dates below.


Select an edition to access the wood engravings.

1797 1798 1805 1809 1814
1816 1821 1826 1832 1847

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