Early life

William John Swainson was born in London in 1789, the son of John Timothy Swainson, a customs collector, keen amateur zoologist and a founding Fellow of the Linnean Society, whose collection of British insects and shells inspired in William a passion for natural history. Although he left school at 14, having ‘not the least aptitude for the ordinary acquirements of schools’, it is clear from his book collection that he was eager to acquire knowledge and eventually to contribute to the scientific discourse of the time.

Making his own way

He obtained a position in the customs service but his ‘thoughts were constantly bent on how I could get abroad, and revel in the zoology of the tropics.’ Perceiving his son’s distraction, his father arranged a position for him with the Commissary-General of the Mediterranean Army in 1807. He spent the next eight years in and around Sicily, finding time to develop his drawing and painting skills, collect specimens and acquire books. With the Napoleonic Wars over, he returned to England and rather than pursuing an Army career, chose to ‘go upon half pay and follow my own course.' The Portuguese government had just opened Brazil to European research, so he travelled to Brazil in 1816, where he spent the next two years making field observations, sketching, and amassing a large collection of specimens which ‘like a bee loaded with honey’ he brought back to England in 1818.

Having already been admitted to the Linnaean Society in 1815, he was elected to the Royal Society in 1820, with Alexander Macleay as one of his proposers. He was now moving amongst the most eminent natural scientists of the day and when a vacancy arose at the British Museum for chief of the zoology department he obtained testimonials from many of them. However, he was keenly disappointed to be passed over, perhaps because of his lack of academic qualifications.

At this time, he was engaged in producing his series of Zoological Illustrations. Lithography had recently been introduced to England and he was encouraged to explore its use in producing zoological plates fit for colouring. The technique proved to be a success and the series was published in monthly numbers between 1820 and 1823. Production of the illustrations and text, supervision of the lithographic process and colouring of the printed plates demanded great dedication.

Marriage and family impacts

Nevertheless, he also found time to court Mary Parkes who was captivated by his ‘rich and elegant mind’ and the couple were married in 1823. We know much about their life from her diaries and letters. Here she recorded her husband’s difficulties in earning an income sufficient to maintain a growing family in London, where he was obliged to live in order to have access to books and subjects necessary to ‘his station as an Ornithologist’. She also wrote of visitors such as the President of the Zoological Society, Nicholas Vigors, and the entomologists Nicholas Haworth and James Stephens. She kept a detailed journal of a trip with her husband and John James Audubon to Paris in 1828, where Swainson introduced Audubon to Baron Cuvier. Cuvier provided free access to the bird specimens of the National Museum of Natural History and became an important contact for Audubon in the promotion of his work.

Maintaining scientific relations

Portrait of William Swainson

Portrait of William Swainson on the title page of Taxidermy with the biography of Zoologists and notices of their works by William Swainson, 1840.

Image: Australian Museum
© Australian Museum

Swainson seems to have had some trouble in maintaining good relations with the scientific community. The rapid expansion of knowledge among naturalists at this time inevitably led to differences of opinion, and Swainson was not backward in expressing his views.

In particular, he met some resistance to his embracing of the Quinarian system of classification. William Sharp Macleay (son of Alexander Macleay) developed the Quinarian system in his Horae Entomologicae, published in two parts in 1819 and 1821. Quinarianism takes its name from the emphasis on the number five: all taxa are divisible into five subgroups. And when these subgroups are placed in a series of circles, the ones that are closer together have greater affinities. When they failed to find five subgroups, proponents of the theory believed that the missing subgroup remained to be found.

Swainson became an enthusiastic advocate for this idea, which was at first entertained by respected British naturalists such as Nicholas Vigors and John Edward Gray. However, with the passing of time and a greater understanding of evolutionary history, the theory fell from favour and Swainson’s continued adherence to it caused him to be out of step with some of his contemporaries.

Throughout the 1820s and 1830s Swainson continued to write and illustrate his own and others’ works. These included the second volume of Fauna Boreali-Americana (1831), which he wrote with John Richardson. This series (1829–1837) was the first illustrated zoological study to be funded in part by the British government. He also produced a second series of Zoological Illustrations (1829–33), three volumes of William Jardine's Naturalist's Library, and eleven volumes of Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia.

Reputation abroad

By 1840 Swainson felt the need to look for greener pastures in the colonies. The death of his wife Mary in 1835 had been a severe blow and despite his prolific output of books and illustrations, his circumstances remained precarious. He sold off some of his collections and set sail for New Zealand with his children and their governess, whom he had married.

In New Zealand he was able to make an impression as a man of science but still struggled to make a comfortable living as a farmer. In hope of finalising the sale of some land he had acquired in South Australia, he travelled to Sydney in 1851. While in the colony he visited Alexander Walker Scott at his home on Ash Island and was impressed by the hundreds of beautiful drawings of Lepidopterous insects made by Scott’s daughters, Harriet and Helena.

After complaining bitterly about the winter, he found that the spring weather was more agreeable and resolved to stay on while waiting for the funds from his land sale. These were not received for several months and during that time the discovery of gold led to a dramatic increase in the cost of living in New South Wales. In early 1853 he accepted an invitation from Sir Charle Latrobe to visit Melbourne. He was provided a small, dilapidated cottage some twenty miles from town where he commenced an investigation of the timber trees of the colony. He obtained a position as Botanical Draftsman to the Victorian Government, but complained that he was unable to properly discharge his duties to collect and catalogue specimens, due to the poor conditions in the cottage and a lack of means such as drying paper and napkin press. By June 1853 he was pressing to be paid his salary which was in arrears, and clearly at odds with the government over his output and remuneration. In his report, tabled in November 1853, he claimed to have identified over 1500 new species and varieties, including within Eucalyptidae ‘five distinct and well-marked genera, hitherto unknown as such.'

On seeing the report, W. J. Hooker of Kew Gardens wrote privately to Mueller, then Victorian Government Botanist, ‘I cannot say that I gave to our Secretary for the Colonies an equally flattering account of Mr Swainson on the Gum Trees!!! In my life I think I never read such a series of trash and nonsense. There is a man who left this country with the character of a first-rate naturalist (though with many eccentricities) and of a very first-rate Natural History artist and he goes to Australia and takes up the subject of Botany, of which he is as ignorant as a goose.’

This assessment of the report was echoed in Maiden’s Presidential Address to the Linnaean Society in 1901, when he described Swainson ‘as a respected scientific man (a zoologist) and yet he had the temerity to give an exhibition of reckless species-making that, as far as I know stands unparalleled in the annals of botanical literature.'

Swainson would no doubt have been discomfited to know that his reputation as a man of science had been so tarnished by his brief sojourn in Australia. He returned to New Zealand in 1854, where he lived until his death in December 1855.