Illustrated Natural History from Shapero Rare Books

- by Michael Stillman


Illustrated Natural History from Shapero Rare Books

Shapero Rare Books recently issued a catalogue of Natural History. While numerous subjects are covered, the highest concentration is in books about birds and flowers. As you might expect considering this, these are books that double as works of art. Birds and flowers are frequently objects of colorful beauty, which is on display in these titles. They are mostly from the 19th century, a time of great artistic achievement in the field of natural history, with the laborious process of hand-coloring bringing these specimens to life. Here are a few of the books you will find in this catalogue.

We will begin with one of the earliest truly serious bird books. The title is The Ornithology of Francis Willughby... by Willughby and John Ray. This is the English edition, published in 1678, two years after a Latin edition. While not the first bird book, most at the time were focused on such features as singing, imagined human-like attributes, edibility and such. Willughby attempted to classify them instead, based on features such as land or water habitation, anatomical features, especially beaks and feet. At the time, it was believed there were only 500 birds rather than the 10,000 known today, and the authors' intention was to dissect, describe, and classify every known one. Much of their classifications was later adopted by Linnaeus. This was initially Willughby's work, but he died before completing it, with his friend John Ray completing the project. Item 31. Priced at £3,950 (British pounds, or approximately $5,462 in U.S. dollars).


The most famous of all British bird books would come two centuries later, The Birds of Great Britain, by John Gould, published in 1873. Gould was the Audubon of Britain, though there were significant differences between the two. Unlike Audubon, Gould published many books about birds from different locales and sometimes focused on specific species, rather than just a magnum opus of the birds of his own land. The other was that Gould was no artist like Audubon. He was the textual expert, but turned to others, including his wife, to provide the drawings. He hired some of the very best, including German Joseph Wolf, who brought his birds to life, rather than just looking like studio reproductions. This book was produced in 25 parts, bound in five volumes, 1862-1873. Gould also hired on most of the talented coloring artists available in London. In the preface, he explained, “Many of the public are quite unaware how the colouring of these large plates is accomplished; and not a few believe that they are produced by some mechanical process or by chromo-lithography. This, however, is not the case; every sky with its varied tints and every feather of each bird were coloured by hand; and when it is considered that nearly two hundred and eighty thousand illustrations in the present work have been so treated, it will most likely cause some astonishment to those who give the subject a thought.” Item 14. £75,000 (US $103,685).


American Audubon and Englishman Gould are the dominant names in bird books, while the Audubon/Gould of France is seriously overlooked. Francois LeVaillant was publishing spectacularly illustrated bird books long before the others, at the turn of the 19th century. This is one of them, Histoire Naturelle des Perroquets, published in two volumes, 1801-1805. You don't need to speak French to guess that this is a book about parakeets, and you will be hard pressed to find a species more suitable for beautiful illustrations. Speaking of LeVaillant, Shapero says, “Until overtaken by John Gould later in the nineteenth century, he was the most prolific producer of comprehensive bird books, and in sheer quality he was eclipsed only by Audubon.” His illustrator was Jacques Barraband, of whom Shapero says, he “is considered to be the greatest ornithological artist of his time.” Napoleon wrought havoc on Europe during his rule, but one positive was he sought to create exceptional publications to the glory of France. The works he promoted about Egypt, especially its ancient history, as a result of his relatively brief rule of the country are famous for their compilation of detailed information about its history. LeVaillant's Perroquets is another volume promoted by the Emperor, who gave copies to heads of state and great scientists to evidence the achievements of his empire. Offered is a first edition in the preferred folio format. Item 20. £125,000 (US $171,650).


Next we go from birds to fruit, but we remain in the French language. Item 4 is Annales de Pomologie Belge et Etrangere par La Commission Royale de Pomologie, by Alexandre Bivort and others, 8 parts in 4 volumes, published 1853-1860. This copy contains 383 of 384 plates, with 274 hand-colored. Among the fruits illustrated are apples, cherries, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries, and plums. While this was a popular book in its time, copies are hard to come by today. Only three complete copies show up in the auction records over many years. £12,500 (US $17,165).


The previous works focus on accuracy of depiction. Now we turn to a different sort of illustration, artistic but not realistic. What else would you expect from the great surrealist, Salvador Dali? The title of this work is Flora Dalinae (Dali flowers), published 1967-1969. Dali was inspired by the prints of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, the great French rose and flower artist, though the latter also focused on realistic presentations. Dali veers off into the fantastic. There is a musical lily which has phonograph records for petals, a begonia with a beating heart and veins instead of branches, a dahlia unicorn. This is copy #38 of 75 on Japon paper with each of the ten etchings signed in pencil by Dali. £37,500 (US $51,500).


Shapero Rare Books may be reached at +44 (0)20 7493 0876 or Their website is