WILLUGHBY, Francis (1635-1672) - RAY, John (1627-1705). The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn, 1678.

$ 8,000.00

WILLUGHBY, Francis (1635-1672) - RAY, John (1627-1705). The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the County of Warwick Esq; Fellow of the Royal Society. In Three Books. Wherein All the Birds hiterto known, Beingin reduced into a Method sutable to their natures, are accurately described. The Descriptions illustrated by most Elegant Figures, nearly resembling the live Birds, Engraven in LXXVIII Copper Plates. Translated into English, and enlarged with many Additions throughout the whole Work. To which are added, Three Considerable Discourse, I. of the Art of Fowling: with a Description of Several Nets in two large Copper Plates. II. Of the Ordering of Singing Birds. III. Of Falconry. By. John Ray, Fellow of the Royal Society. London: A.C. for John Martyn, Printer to the Royal Society, at the Bell in St. Pauls Church-Yard, 1678.

Folio (14 x 9 inches). Title-page printed in red and black, 2 engraved plates showing the techniques for and equipment needed for catching birds within the text, 78 numbered plates of portraits of birds at the end, some of which are credited to Thomas Browne (1605–1682), including the Shearwater, Little Auk, Razorbill, and Great Northern Diver, 2 full-page letterpress tables (some minor marginal worming to the first third of the book, last few leaves a bit browned). Contemporary calf, the spine in seven compartments with six raised bands, gilt-lettered in one, the others decorated with fine gilt tools (a little scuffed).

Provenance: with the contemporary  inscription "Him  Master" on the title-page; with Sotheby's, 2nd December, 1999, lot 129.


Willughby met John Ray, his lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1653, they became lifelong friends and collaborators in a number of natural history projects, including a plan "... to reduce the several Tribes of Things to a Method; and to give accurate Descriptions of the several Species, from a strict View of them. And forasmuch as Mr. Willughby's Genius lay chiefly to animals, therefore he undertook the Birds, Beasts, Fishes, and Insects, as Mr. Ray did the Vegetables"... (Derham, Remains, 48).

Sadly Willughby died in 1672, and Ray undertook to publish what he could of Willughby's incomplete history of animals. The "Ornithology" was published first in 1676, in Latin, and then in an enlarged English version, as here. The nineteenth-century Cambridge zoologist Alfred Newton described this work as ‘the foundation of scientific Ornithology’ (A. Newton, Dictionary of Birds, 1893–6, 7).

Willughby and Ray's "Ornithology" was a pioneering work in the scientific study of birds. Previous works concerning birds "typically contained information gleaned from earlier sources such as Aristotle and Pliny with extra comments by the author. These works would usually describe the birds, where they might be found, whether they were edible, if they had any medicinal value, and what their human traits and characteristics were (for example Wrens are viewed as brave while Finches are dim-witted). It was also not uncommon to find mythical and fabled birds such as the phoenix and griffin amongst the pages of such works. As the study of natural history progressed the standards of ornithological works improved but they still lacked sensible and coherent organisation. Birds tended to be grouped together by habitat and then by their actions. Walter Charleton's (1619–1707) system, explained in his Onomasticon zoicon (London, 1668), involved looking at the birds' diets, whether they bathed (and in what water/sand) or sang.

"The way birds were ordered changed with the publication of the Ornithology. Firstly, they are classed here as land or water birds. The land birds are then divided into those with crooked beaks and claws and then those with straight beaks. The water birds are divided into those 'that wade in the waters, or frequent watery places, but swim not; The second, such as are of a middle nature between swimmers and waders, or rather that partake of both kinds, some whereof are cloven-footed, and yet swim; others whole-footed, but yet very long-leg'd like the waders: The third is of whole-footed, or fin-toed Birds, that swim in the water'. This is thought to be the first attempt to rationally classify birds.

"The 77 illustrations contained in the Ornithology come from various sources. Some are copies made from the collection of pictures and specimens owned by Willughby, others Ray had commissioned. The quality of the illustrations varies greatly; some are very lifelike and easily identified while others are not. Many of the birds have unusual postures for their species while those drawn from specimens (dead or alive) tend to be the more accurate. Ray himself puts the lack of quality down to the fact that he was unable to fully oversee the engravers' work as he was away from London and had to send instructions by letter. Some birds are included twice as the first engraving was seen as inadequate. For example both TAB.LVIII and TAB.LXXVII contain depictions of the Stone Curlew. The first engraving looks to be drawn from a dead specimen, while the second is more recognisable as the bird it is supposed to represent owing to its more detailed plumage and the identifiable stripe on the head" (The Whipple Library: University of Cambridge online).

The ornithology was followed by the "Historia Piscium" in 1786. The "History of insects" was the last of Willughby's works to be published, although Ray did not live to see this project through. It was published in 1710 as "Historia insectorum" on behalf of the Royal Society, edited by William Derham. Anker 532; Nissen IVB 991; Wing W2879; Zimmer II, 677. Catalogued by Kate Hunter