Coloured Illustrations of British Birds, and Their Eggs.

London: S. & J. Bentley, Wilson, and Fley for G. Willis, and (vol. VII) by S. & J. Bentley and Henry Fley for Willis and Sotheran, 1853-1857.

7 vols, 8vo (211 x 125mm), pp. I: iv, 230; II: iv, 233, [1 (imprint)]; III: iv, 240; IV: iv, 215, [1 (imprint)]; V: iv, 192; VI: iv, 185, [1 (blank)]; VII: vi, [2 (errata, blank)], 1-132, 135-206 (A2 and A3 reversed, p. 65 misnumbered ‘56’, pagination skips from 132 to 135); 435 hand-coloured lithographic plates (of which 8 black and white) by Meÿer and family, all plates facing blank ll.; occasional very light foxing; ?publisher’s red straight-grained morocco elaborately gilt, boards with gilt double-ruled and ornamental frames, spine gilt decorated in 6 compartments between raised bands, directly lettered in 2, edges and turn-ins with ornamental gilt-tooled rolls, all edges gilt; extremities lightly rubbed and bumped, spines a bit darkened, endpapers lightly foxed, overall a very fine, well-preserved set with very fresh plates.


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Second octavo edition. Meÿer’s British Birds is, ‘[w]ith the possible exception of Lord Lilford’s Birds, [which was published some fifty years later] […] the finest and most complete atlas of portraits of British avifauna (with their eggs) ever published’ (Wood). Meÿer was a British artist of Dutch extraction aiming to represent birds in a natural, life-like manner. His characteristically wonderfully detailed, accurate and attractive plates resulted from a collaboration of the Meÿer family, headed by Meÿer’s wife, ‘an accomplished artist, [who] not only executed such drawings as were not made by her husband, but drew many of the plates upon the stones’ (Mullens and Swann, p. 399), with colouring done by their children. Mrs Meÿer is known to have visited the gardens of the Zoological Society to study birds, while the eggs were collected by the family or sent by friends.

Encouraged by the success of the folio, plates-only edition (Illustrations of British Birds, 1835-50), Meÿer planned a second series, Coloured Illustrations of British Birds, which was also to be published in parts, but now in tandem with Yarrell’s History of British Birds. ‘Yarrell’s work had many delightful wood engravings as text-figures. Meyer’s idea was to supplement these with hand-coloured lithographs. The almost inevitable result was that the parts after a very short time did not synchronise in their publication dates and soon became two entirely separate works’. This first octavo edition of Coloured Illustrations (1842-1850) was the first to contain letterpress text (4 or 5 pages per species) to make up for its separation from Yarrell’s History. For the colouring Meÿer’s son Charles ‘invented a system of stencilling the colouring of the bird figures and the eggs, thus keeping the lines clean and also speeding up the tedious colouring process for his brothers and sisters’ (Christina Jackson, Bird Illustrators: Some Artists in Early Lithography. London, 1975, pp. 60-61).

Due to adjustments as the series progressed, and as for the folio edition, the later editions contain a varying number of plates, some of which were redrawn or their colouring altered. This second octavo edition has, among other things, ‘an extra plate of eggs which were unknown when the previous edition was published’ (Wood). This set is more elaborately illustrated than many extant copies, including that listed by Wood: vol. I of this set has one additional plate of eggs and three further black-and-white plates, including the plate of the Golden Eagle’s beak (referred to on p. 139 but bound in towards the beginning of the volume, beside the plate of the Golden Eagle). This set is further bound in an elaborate morocco-gilt binding which we have seen in other sets on the market in the past years, and which is therefore likely to be the publisher’s binding.

Mullens and Swann, p. 404; Wood, p. 462.

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