(Edinburgh and London: W. H. Lizars; Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman; W. Curry Jun. & Co., -34). 660 x 520 mm. (26 x 20 1/2"). A couple of plates bound out of order, but with all plates called for by Ayer. Two volumes of plates. Without octavo text volumes. FIRST EDITION, bound from original parts (plates bearing watermarks ranging from 1815 to 1833).
SUPERB MODERN PRUSSIAN BLUE MOROCCO, GILT, IN PERIOD STYLE, covers framed by double gilt rules enclosing a undulating floral vine accented with cornucopia and a bird in flight, cornerpieces featuring a dove with an olive sprig in its beak, inner frames of leaves and flowers, raised bands, spine compartments with large central fleuron composed of lancets and floral tools, cascading floral sprays at corners, gilt lettering, densely gilt turn-ins, reinforced hinges, marbled endpapers, all edges gilt. With engraved titles by W. H. Lizars and 218 SPLENDID HAND-COLORED ETCHED PLATES--many heightened with gum arabic, three folded at foot--by Selby or Robert Mitford after drawings by Selby, Mitford, or William Jardine, engraved by W. H. Lizars, colored by Daniel McNee and others, and with four etched plates of avian anatomical details by and after Selby. Ayer/Zimmer, pp. 571-72; Jackson, "Bird Etchings," p. 212; Mullens & Swann, pp. 519-20; Sitwell, "Fine Bird Books," p. 141; Wood 561. The two title pages with a bit of foxing and very expert repair to a clean vertical cut running the length of the page, occasional minor foxing, small marginal stains, or faint offsetting onto blank facing pages, plate XI in volume II with a small tear at tail of gutter, affecting a one-inch (background) section of the image, otherwise AN ESPECIALLY FINE COPY, THE PLATES REMARKABLY CLEAN AND FRESH, with vibrant coloring, and in splendid unworn sympathetic bindings.
This is a lovely copy of what Mullens & Swann call the "English equivalent of Audubon's famous work," reaching that status because of its "magnificent life-size plates." Contemporary ornithologist William Swainson described it as "the most splendid and costly work yet published on the birds of Great Britain." Prideaux John Selby (1788-1867) was fascinated by birds from childhood. DNB notes that he began to make "careful, coloured drawings of the birds in his district" while still a Durham schoolboy, supplementing his images with notes on the birds' habits and characteristics. He began issuing the plates for "British Ornithology" in 1821, etching the images from his own drawings with the help of his brother-in-law, Robert Mitford, who had trained with Thomas Bewick. The plates were finished by the engravers at W. H. Lizars (Audubon's publisher) and colored by a team headed by artist Daniel McNee, later president of the Royal Scottish Academy. The Lizars firm did a number of books with illustrations from both steel and copper plates, but, as Jackson observes, "never surpassed the work done for 'Illustrations of British Ornithology.'" The plates were issued in parts over 13 years, while the text volumes were issued separately in 1833, in order to secure copyright without providing the copyright libraries with the costly plates; consequently, volumes with plates from the original parts are usually found without the text, as here. (A re-issue by Henry Bohn in 1841 combined the text and plates, and is the version more commonly seen in the marketplace.) Selby's illustrations have an austere elegance and clarity that set them apart from the other great works of British ornithology. According to Jackson, "Selby's bird figures were the most accurate delineations of British birds to that date, and the liveliest. After so many books with small, stiff bird portraits, this new atlas with its life-size figures and more relaxed drawing was a great achievement in the long history of bird illustration." While copies of this work do appear for sale (and individual plates fetch more than $1,000), it is difficult to find a set--like ours--with all watermarks before 1840, as the popularity of the work led Lizars to re-issue them several times, with the result that sets are frequently composed of a mix of early and later plates. The remarkable condition of the present set is a considerable bonus here. (Lhi21018)