WILSON, Alexander (1766-1813) - George ORD (1781-1866) and Charles Lucien BONAPARTE (1803-1857). American Ornithology; or, the Natural History of the Birds of the United States. Illustrated with plates engraved from drawings from nature... Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, .
4 volumes: 3 volumes text, one volume of plates (10 4/8 x 7 inches). Engraved frontispiece portrait of Wilson in volume one, 76 numbered engraved plates to illustrate Wilson, including 21 with later colour, and 27 numbered uncoloured plates to illustrate the Bonaparte, comprising over 375 figures after drawings by Wilson, T. R. Peale, and A. Rider, most engraved by and all retouched by Alexander Lawson. 19th-century half tan calf, marbled paper boards, the spine in six compartments, with five raised bands, morocco lettering-pieces in the second and third, the others decorated with small gilt tools, top edges gilt, others uncut and largely unopened (spines darkened, extremities a little rubbed).
The so-called "Philadelphia edition", not to be confused with the First Edition printed in Philadelphia.
Wilson's "American Ornithology" famously pre-dating Audubon "...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.
Bonaparte's continuation of Wilson's "American Ornithology" was the author's first important ornithological publication. The nephew of Napoleon, Bonaparte was in the United States from 1822 to 1828, where he wrote four additional volumes for the ornithological work which Wilson had left unfinished at his death. The work purports to depict an additional 60 birds not recorded by Wilson, most of which had been collected by Thomas Say (Bonaparte's close friend and mentor in America for whom he named Say's phoebe, Sayornis saya) on the government-sponsored Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains of 1819-1820. However allowances were not made for differences in plumage, and the actual number of new species is smaller. "Bonaparte had thought of using illustrator John James Audubon, whom he had met in Philadelphia in 1824, but the engraver Alexander Lawson refused to engrave Audubon's drawings. One drawing, nevertheless, was included: Audubon's first published work, the "Great Crow Blackbird" (now called the boat-tailed grackle). Bonaparte continued an intense, often stormy relationship with Audubon for many years" (DNB). Nissen, Birds 997; Sitwell, Fine Bird Books, page 157. Catalogued by Kate Hunter