William Swainson, naturalist, author and illustrator, was a keen collector of books in the first half of the 19th century. After his death, the Australian Museum acquired a substantial part of his collection. This was the first major purchase for the growing library.

William Swainson’s collection

Books in the collection

In 1858 the Australian Museum purchased William Swainson’s scientific library from his widow. At the time it comprised some 227 volumes but, due to attrition over the years, there are now only 155 volumes which can be confidently identified as part of the original collection and a further 9 volumes which are likely to have been part of it.

The extant collection comprises 164 volumes in 77 titles. Of these, the vast majority were published before 1819. Nearly half are in Latin and although most of these were published after 1850, there are relatively few from the first decade of the nineteenth century. During the previous century scholars were increasingly moving away from Latin to vernacular languages and this is reflected in the collection, with works in English and French each comprising about one quarter of the total.

The titles are primarily zoological, with entomology and ornithology well represented. There are several works of particular interest. Paolo Boccone’s Museo di piante rare della Sicilia, Malta, Corsica, Italia, Piemonte, e Germania (1697) is one of the oldest in the collection, with detailed engravings of many rare plants.

Maria Sybilla Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorium Surinamensium (1705) is a large folio volume with beautiful illustrations of insect life. The author was a woman who had spent many years carefully observing and recording the insects of Europe before travelling to South America to study the insects of then Dutch Surinam. The work is remarkable not only for the beauty of its illustrations but also for its depiction of the complete life cycles of many insects. This particular volume also bears the name of the previous owner, Dru Drury, who had been an entomologist and collector of natural history specimens in the 18th century. His copy of Merian’s Surinam Insects is listed in the 1805 catalogue of his collection which was auctioned after his death.

The illustrations in John William Lewin’s Prodromus Entomology : Natural history of the Lepidopterous insects of New South Wales, published in London in 1805, were printed from engraved copper plates sent to England by the author. These were the earliest plates known to be engraved in New South Wales. Lewin, a naturalist and artist, arrived in Sydney in 1800 and spent his first years in the colony studying and drawing insects for the Prodromus as well as birds for the later Birds of New Holland with their Natural History, published in 1808.

Many of the books bear Swainson’s leather nameplate, some of them transferred after the books were rebound in the 1920s. There is clear evidence of his close study of the books in the detailed comments made in his careful script, often in ink, less commonly in pencil. He occasionally took issue with the text or elaborated on it based on his own experience or knowledge. He sometimes added his own indexing, presumably for ease of use, and translated the Roman numeral dates of publication to more modern Arabic numerals.

His copies of John Latham’s A General Synopsis of Birds would have been particularly important to his own study of birds and appear to have been well used. In Vol. 1 Part 1 (1781) and Vol. 1 Part 2 (1782) there are a few plates which have been hand coloured in an otherwise black and white edition. Comparison with the fully coloured versions held by the Smithsonian Libraries reveal a few personal flourishes, such as additional landscape backgrounds and foliage and some variation in plumage marking and colour. Intriguingly, in Vol. 2 Part 1 (1783) there is a charming pencil sketch (with hand-written species label) as well as two watercolour sketches, which appear to be by Swainson himself, executed on otherwise blank pages. These show a freedom of expression which is not as evident in his own printed publications. There is also a fully worked pencil and watercolour drawing with hand-written species identification on another blank page.

History of the collection

Swainson wrote that his passion for natural history was gained ‘as a mere child’ so it is not surprising that he was only sixteen years old at the time of his earliest known acquisitions, inscribing his name in Merian’s Metamorphosis in 1806. The following year he travelled to Sicily to commence eight years of service in the Mediterranean Army, during which time he ‘alternatively investigated … zoology and botany’. Almost one quarter of his collection comes from this period and is heavily weighted towards botanical works.

Swainson returned to England in 1815 before travelling to Brazil in 1816, where he spent the next three years collecting specimens. Once back in England, he continued to build his library with books which informed his own writing and illustrations. In 1834, he expressed his pleasure in being ‘surrounded with immense collections and with a large library, [where] I had all the materials of study under my own roof.'

In May 1840, prior to emigrating to New Zealand, he sold a portion of his zoological library at an auction. One of the ships carrying the Swainson family’s goods to New Zealand ran aground in Table Bay, South Africa. His daughter wrote ‘All Papa’s beautiful books – the illustrations were in her, the proofs I mean, besides others which had been bound just before leaving... Dr Adamson bought the books for fifteen pounds and told Papa all about it. He is very much grieved you may be sure.’ There is no record of further loss to the library, but the home he settled in suffered an earthquake in 1848 which may have had some impact on the collection.

In 1857, two years after Swainson’s death, his widow Ann offered to sell her late husband’s scientific library. Sir William Denison, then Governor of New South Wales and AM trustee, informed the Board of the offer. W.S Macleay, Board chairman, was in favour of the purchase, subject to an inspection of the condition of the 227 volumes. They arrived in Sydney in early 1858 and were subsequently viewed by the Museum trustees who proposed that the Government be asked to provide 97 pounds for the purchase and to also fund the fitting of bookcases in the Boardroom. The cheque for the library was sent to New Zealand some nine months later, but the books were not formally catalogued until 1883. As a result, many were not catalogued in the order in which they had been acquired. It was not until Matthew Stephens undertook a thorough search for his 2013 thesis on the library’s history that the complete content of the collection was identified.

Significance of the collection

The importance to the Museum of acquiring a library of scientific works in the mid nineteenth century can hardly be overstated. While physical specimens were vital to further scientific knowledge, books could stand in for those which were unavailable. Detailed descriptions and accurate drawings could provide much assistance in the classification of species. For naturalists of limited means, who could not afford to subscribe to costly illustrated publications, access to public collections was essential.

Today the collection is of interest for the rarity of the books themselves, many of which are well over two hundred years old. Furthermore, many are beautifully illustrated and are a delight to view. It is believed that no other public institution in the world has such a large single collection of significant works of natural history.

The books provide an insight into the evolution of classification and scientific knowledge at a time when rapid progress was being made. Swainson’s annotations and comments made by hand in many of the books give an insight into changing interpretations of species. The books which Swainson acquired were often second-hand, and there is evidence of prior ownership by other naturalists such as the entomologist Dru Drury. They also demonstrate the personal preferences and interests of a naturalist who was a learned but somewhat controversial figure.