About Swainson’s own publications

Of the 227 volumes in Swainson’s collection, not one book is authored or illustrated by him. Yet he wrote and illustrated almost continuously between 1820 and 1840 and his illustrations were particularly well regarded. The absence of his own works from the collection is puzzling. It may perhaps be explained by the losses the collection suffered during his lifetime, including the sale of books to augment his own funds prior to leaving England, and the shipwreck of one of the boats carrying his books and illustrations. There is also the possibility that his family chose to retain his personal works in New Zealand, although their subsequent fate is unknown.

Fortunately, many of his works have since been acquired by the Museum and form a valuable part of the rare books collection.

Swainson’s illustrations highlights

Highlights include Zoological Illustrations published in 3 volumes from 1820 to 1823 and a further 3 volumes 1829-1833. These present descriptions of birds, insects and shells together with illustrations. The original series is thought to be the first publication of hand-coloured lithographic plates of zoological subjects.

Swainson also provided the text and drawings for three volumes of The Naturalist’s Library edited by Sir William Jardine (1843): Flycatchers and Birds of Western Africa, Parts 1 and 2. These were published by Lizars after Williamson had left for New Zealand.

Taxidermy (1840)

In his Taxidermy; With the biography of zoologists, and notices of their works (1840) he wrote extensively on pictorial representations of animals, or zoological drawing, 'as the best and the most general substitute for the animals themselves.' While he stressed that 'In zoological painting, the first requisite, as regards its application to the purposes of science, is accuracy in the detail', he also wrote that the individual must be studied in nature and 'It is here that genius first enters into the subject.' His comprehensive list of the most eminent zoological painters and engravers, in his estimation, included Lear, Gould and Audubon for birds, as well as the Miss Listers (sic) for conchology.

Lithography and Swainson

The principal method of reproducible hand illustration prior to 1800 was engraving, which relied on the skill of the engraver to translate the artist’s drawings. With the invention of lithography in 1798, it became possible for the artist to draw directly on the lithographic stone and have the print made from it. The print could then be coloured by hand, either by the original artist or by a colourist employed for that purpose.

Adoption of the technique was initially slow after its introduction to England in 1801. By 1820, however, interest was increasing and Swainson was encouraged by William Leach of the British Museum ‘to try how far it might be used in producing zoological plates fit for colouring. My attempts succeeded; and the first series of the Zoological Illustrations was the result.’

Swainson was thus a pioneer of a technique that was to become in the following decades a popular choice for zoological illustrators, allowing them greater freedom of expression and being less costly to produce. The number of lithographic printers grew to meet the demand, spurred on by the successful production of works such as those of John and Elizabeth Gould. Over the following years one of Gould’s most important colourists was Gabriel Bayfield, whom Swainson credits with the colouring of the second series of Zoological Illustrations and other works.

Ripheus Dasycephalus (Pl. 131) in Zoological illustrations

Ripheus Dasycephalus (Pl. 131) in Zoological illustrations, Second Series, The Insects by William Swainson, 1832-33

Image: Australian Museum
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