Fly into Fagel

In the 18th century the science of ornithology and the art of bird illustration began to advance rapidly together, with an increasing number of beautiful and informative books on birds being produced. Prior to this, books on botany were more numerous than books about birds and animals, as plants were perceived to be of greater interest and importance as a source of food and medicine. Species of birds previously unknown in Europe had begun to be discovered with the age of European expansion and new discoveries in the natural world. Descriptions were based on field observation, with authors and artists often travelling abroad and drawing and colouring the birds on site. Birds were also transported live, preserved in alcohol or stuffed. Collectors of specimens for Cabinets of Curiosity  gave access to illustrators and scientists. Earlier drawings, prints and paintings were also a source. Even pirates had a role, and collections destined for the King of Spain, the King of France and even Madame Pompadour were robbed on the high seas by English pirates; the compliment was returned when the opportunities arose.


Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux. Shelfmark: Fag.N.4. vols. 17-23


This Autumn blog features some 18th-century bird illustrations from the Fagel Collection. For birds it is migration time, and also harvest time for gleaning cereals, berries and nuts, making the most of the offerings of nature and humans in gardens, woods and fields. Bird illustration has developed from woodcuts and wood engravings to a more elaborate and creative presentation of birds, placing them against stylised landscape backdrops featuring the natural and man-made environment. They are seen on branches and in the company of insects and fruits, making for a more interesting depiction (though not always strictly accurate). Etching and engraving on metal facilitated this development, and sometimes the two processes were combined.


Buffon’s Natural History of Birds

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-88), published his Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux (Paris, 1770-1783) as part of an encyclopaedic multi-volume work on natural history. A leading naturalist of the Enlightenment, he was also a mathematician, and from 1739 keeper of the Jardin des Plantes, or Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants which today forms part of the French Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. The Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi was inspired by a request to catalogue the royal collections of Louis XIV and he had many collaborators in this enterprise. For Buffon the illustrations were an important part of the work and those in the bird volumes bear the name of Nicholas Martinet. In addition, Buffon tells us that  “more than eighty artists and workers have been continually employed for five years on this work“.


Seligmann’s Foreign and Rare Birds

Rice-birds (Ortolans) of Carolina. Catesby comments: “In the beginning of September, while the grain of rich is yet soft and milky innumerable flights of these birds arrive from remote parts to the great detriment of the inhabitants”.

Two of the foremost producers of books on European and exotic birds were Mark Catesby and George Edwards, English ornithologists and bird illustrators. Catesby’s travels in the Americas, between 1722 and 1726, resulted in the earliest colour-plate book on American birds: Natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (London,1729-1747). His contemporary Edwards spent several years of observation in Europe before taking up the post of librarian at the Royal College of Physicians. Here he had books on natural history to hand, as well as access to the private museum of Hans Sloane, who commissioned illustrations of his collections. The result was Natural History of Uncommon Birds (London, 1743-1751) and Gleaning of Natural History (London, 1758-1764). These two authors and illustrators frequently etched their own plates which were hand-coloured at publication.

In 1749 a Nuremberg publisher and engraver Johann Michael Seligmann published a German translation of these three works combined under the title ‘Sammlung verschiedener ausländischer und seltener Vögel‘  Shelfmark: Fag.GG.3.13-15. The plates of Edwards and Catesby were re-engraved by Seligmann, and further embellished by the addition of figures of plants not present in the originals e.g the aquatic background in Catesby’s Rice-birds (above). Popular with 18th century artists was a Dutch method of illustration using pen drawings with watercolours. Birds in action were also a new feature of interest in these works.


It was the male of the species who was mostly depicted the in ornithological works of the time, although sometimes the female was included if her appearance was very different, or in proximity to the nest. Here Edwards presents male and female humming birds with nest and eggs.


Birds of the Cape

Dagh register gehouden op de Voiagie gedaen naer der Amacqua Land: Simon van der Stels’ journal of his expedition to Namaqualand, 1685-1686. TCD MS 984

In August 1685 Simon van der Stel, Dutch Commander of the Cape of Good Hope, set off on an expedition to explore the Copper Mountains of Namaqualand, a region of south-western Africa.  His report to the East India company, in the form of a journal, is illustrated with descriptions and coloured illustrations of the flora and fauna he found on his journey.

River bird called ‘Tsehoijra’ by the inhabitants of Namaqualand



“This beautiful and graceful bird produces a lovely sound when flying and seems to begrudge humans the beauty of its song, as it avoids them and never alights, and cannot be shot otherwise than on the wing…”






Two birds found in the woods of the Western Cape, South Africa, near a range of mountains of the same name:

“This lovely crested bird is all the more a joy because of the varied colours of his plumage when he seems to entertain with his lovely song the awful woods of the Piket Bergh. Found on the 4th September.”

“This bird is the female of the crested bird which we found in the woods of the Picketbergh. The 18th January.”


Birds often feature as decorative ornaments in early printed books, such as initials, head and tail pieces and vignettes. This woodcut is from a horticultural work by Jean de la Quintinie, director of the royal fruit and vegetable gardens of Louis XIV, appearing at the beginning of an introductory poem by Perrault.

Instruction Pour les Jardins Fruitiers et Potagers, avec un Traite des Orangers, suivy de quelques Reflexions sur lAgriculture. 2eme. ed. rev & corr. (Amsterdam, 1692). Shelfmark: Fag.M.4.15


Lead image: detail from Seligmann’s engraving of Caprimulgus Carolinensis – a bird which Catesby calls Whip-poor-will, but which also combines features of the Common nighthawk and Chuck-will’s-widow.

Information on the Fagel Collection:

Regina Whelan Richardson is an Assistant Librarian in the Department of Early Printed Books, working on the Fagel Collection.

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