WILSON, Alexander (1766-1813) and George ORD (1781-1866). American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of the Birds of the United States. Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1808-1814.
9 volumes (13 6/8 x 10 6 /8 inches). 76 engraved plates after Wilson by Alexander Lawson, G. Murray, Benjamin Tanner and J.G. Warnicke with contemporary hand-color (some mostly light foxing, offsetting, soiling, and occasional dampstaining heaviest in vol. VI). Original half red roan, marbled paper boards (spines broken and very worn, in need of rebacking).
Provenance: with the contemporary engraved armorial bookplate of Thomas Edmondson, Jr. on the front paste-down of each book; with the 20th-century book label of Henry Gibson on each front paste-down; with Christie's New York, 19th December 2002, lot 229.
"THE FIRST TRULY GREAT AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGY AND ALSO THE FIRST TRULY OUTSTANDING AMERICAN COLOR PLATE BOOK OF ANY TYPE" (Bennett)
First edition of volumes I-VI and IX, reissues of volumes VII and VIII.
Pre-dating Audubon "...this was the first American work to use color plates to convey scientific information, and the first real combination of text and color illustration produced in the United States. the project's success proved that an American audience would support such a large undertaking. Works of natural history and science, with a concrete function, proved to be more commercially viable in America than luxury works such as view books" (Reese 3.)
Wilson and his nephew emigrated to America from Scotland in 1794. Legend has it that Wilson's interest in the birds of America began the day after their landing in Delaware. His eye was caught by a glimpse of a brilliantly plumaged bird (a red-headed woodpecker), so he shot it, and immediately regretted it. Some years later he found himself living near the famous American botanist William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson's growing interest in birds. "Nancy Bartram, William's niece, helped Wilson learn to draw them. On 1 June 1803 he wrote to a friend that 'I am now about to make a collection of all our finest birds', and on 12 March 1804 he confided in fellow Scot Alexander Lawson, a Philadelphia engraver, that he was 'making a collection of all the birds in this part of North America' (Hunter).
Publication of the first volume of Wilson's "American Ornithology" with plates engraved by Lawson, was in 1808. "Wilson hoped to publish ten volumes, with ten plates each, but the great strain of producing it contributed to his death before completion. There were nine volumes with seventy-six plates, and it was the most extensive publication by any American author. A prospectus and specimen plates were printed, and Wilson agreed to obtain 200 subscribers before volume 1 was published. He travelled around the United States obtaining orders and studying birds. Early subscriptions from Robert Fulton and Jefferson helped persuade other subscribers. Volume 1 appeared in September 1808, and soon the printing was increased to 500 copies per volume. Plates were printed uncoloured and then coloured by hand. It was tedious work and when colourists quit, Wilson did the job himself" (Frank N. Egerton for DNB). Wilson died before the final three volumes were published. George Ord completed the remainder from Wilson's notes. Anker 533; Bennett, A Practical Guide to American Book Collecting (1663-1940) p.44; Fine Bird Books (1990) p.155; Nissen IVB 992; Zimmer p.679.