A History of British Birds. Vol. I, Land Birds, Eighth edition; Vol. II, Water Birds, Sixth edition.

Newcastle: Printed by Edw. Walker for T. Bewick (and others), 1826.

Charles Darwin's copy, signed and dated (1840) by him on the title-page of each volume, and containing additional autograph notations by Darwin, particularly with reference to the British finch. This is a highly significant volume from Darwin’s library – in 1840 Darwin was in process of formulating his theory of evolution, and Darwin’s examination and notation of this book may possibly have been for the purpose of supplementary fact-finding and corroboration for his theory. Each volume contains one or two page citations in Darwin’s hand on the rear flyleaf, together with marginal side-lining on the cited text page (to descriptions of The Hook-Billed Duck, The Tufted Duck etc.); in addition, there is an additional hard-to read notation on the first page of each volume’s preface which is probably also in Darwin's hand. The rear flyleaf citation in volume I is especially notable as it pertains to text about the ‘Canary Finch.’ Darwin’s interest in finches from an evolutionary perspective is well known and documented. Indeed, the variation in species of finches from the Galapagos Islands was one of the primary impetuses to Darwin’s formulation of the Theory of Evolution – Darwin himself most significantly writing in his Journalof the Voyage of the Beagle: “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” In the context of Bewick’s book, Darwin would here appear to be gathering comparative data about the British finch for the sake of further consolidating his emerging evolutionary viewpoint – in keeping with his 1844 statement to Hooker that “I was so struck with the original distribution of Galapagos organisms … that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which could bear any way on what are species.” By 1840 the 31-year old Darwin was beginning to withdraw from his previous circles to concentrate on his own research. His first child, William Erasmus, had been born on 27 December 1839, with the child’s expressions fascinating him enough for him to keep a diary of observation. Shortly afterwards he experienced the first really serious bout of the illness (stomach troubles and nausea) which was to dog him for the rest of his life. Both Bewick and Darwin can be said to have been products of the great explosion of interest in the animal kingdom which occurred from the late eighteenth century onwards. Most of the books from Darwin’s library are institutionally owned, and instances of any book from his library are accordingly exceptionally rare in commerce.

At the age of 14 Bewick (1753-1828) was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, an engraver in Newcastle. Bewick pioneered a new printing technique, known as wood engraving. The artist works on the end grain of a block of wood, instead of the side grain, and uses the burin of the engraver, rather than the knife of the woodcutter, to carve the block. He discovered that fine detail could be achieved with cutting designs in hard wood, rather than the soft wood previously used for woodcuts. Bewick drew his original designs directly on the wood. As such, there was no intermediary, and the resulting prints were scientifically accurate and elaborately detailed, even though frequently very small. They could also be printed right along with the type, instead of on a separate press. Bewick engraved a series of diagrams on wood for Charles Hutton’s treatise on mensuration. In 1775 he received a prize from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce for a wood engraving of the ‘Huntsman and the Old Hound’ from Select Fables by the late Mr Gay. In 1776 Bewick became a partner in Beilby’s workshop. The joint business prospered, becoming Newcastle’s leading engraving service. Bewick had at least 30 pupils who worked for him and Beilby as apprentices, the first of which was his younger brother John.

The partners published their History of Quadrupeds in 1790, intended for children but reaching an adult readership, and its success encouraged them to consider a more serious work of natural history. In preparation for this Bewick spent several years engraving the wood blocks for Land Birds, the first volume of A History of British Birds. Given his detailed knowledge of the birds of Northumberland, Bewick prepared the illustrations, so Beilby was given the task of assembling the text, which he struggled to do. Bewick ended up writing most of the text, which led to a dispute over authorship; Bewick refused to have Beilby named as the author, and in the end only Bewick’s name appeared on the title page. The book was an immediate success when published—by Beilby and Bewick themselves—in 1797. Given its success, Bewick started work at once on the second volume, Water Birds, but the disagreement over authorship led to a final split with Beilby.

Bewick’s A History of British Birds was the first field guide to appear in Britain. Unlike the massive folios that preceded it, this lively work was intended to sit in a capacious coat pocket, so that the novice ornithologist could use it to check the feathered legs of a barn owl or distinguish between a shrike and a woodchat. It is a serious guide, written with a countryman's understanding of nature, and a scholar’s knowledge of classifications. A History of British Birds was a phenomenal success, fostering an interest in birds and a love of natural history in ordinary people as well as amongst the wealthy. The great American ornithologist John James Audobon was inspired by Bewick’s attention to living postures and character, while as a child Beatrix Potter attempted to imitate the artist, copying his woodcuts to practice drawing and even attempting to create her own prints with an ink made from soot.

“The Birds is specifically British, but is the forerunner of all modern field guides. Bewick was helped by his intimate knowledge of the habits of animals acquired during his frequent excursions into the country. He also recounts information passed to him by acquaintances and local gentry, and that obtained in natural history works of his time, including those by Thomas Pennant and Gilbert White, as well as the translation of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle.

“Many of the illustrations that have most frequently been reproduced in other books and as decorations are the small tailpieces that Bewick had placed at the bottoms of the pages of the original. The worlds depicted are so small that a magnifying glass is necessary to examine their detail; each scene, as Adrian Searle writes, ‘is a small and often comic revelation’, each tiny image giving ‘enormous pleasure’; Bewick ‘was as inventive as he was observant, as funny and bleak as he was exacting and faithful to the things he saw around him.’

“Bewick’s biographer, Jenny Uglow, writes that ‘Bewick appears to have had a faultless sense of exactly what line was needed, and above all where to stop, as if there were no pause for analysis or reflection between the image in the mind and the hand on the wood. This skill, which has made later generations of engravers pause in awe, could be explained as an innate talent, the je-ne-sais-quoi of ‘genius’. But it also came from the constant habit of drawing as a child, the painstaking learning of technique as an apprentice’ …

“William Wordsworth began his anecdotal poem ‘The Two Thieves’, composed in 1798, with the line ‘O now that the genius of Bewick were mine’, in which case he would give up writing, he declared … Four years after his death, his sixteen-year-old admirer Charlotte Brontë wrote a poem of 20 quatrains titled ‘Lines on the celebrated Bewick’ which describe the various scenes she comes across while leafing through the books illustrated by him. Later still, the poet Alfred Tennyson left his own tribute on the flyleaf of a copy of Bewick's History of British Birds … The critic John Ruskin compared the subtlety of his drawing to that of Holbein, J. M. W. Turner, and Paolo Veronese writing that the way Bewick had engraved the feathers of his birds was ‘the most masterly thing ever done in woodcutting’” (Wikipedia).



Two vols., 8vo (211 x 133 mm), pp. xliv, 382; xxii, 432, illustrated by Bewick with numerous wood engravings of land and water birds (some gatherings loose, foxed). Contemporary half calf and marbled boards, morocco spine labels (covers very worn and rubbed, hinges repaired).

Item #5276

Price: $95,000.00