14 May 2011

Birds of a Feather

The recent auctions of John Gould's Birds of Europe (1832-37), Birds of Australia (1840-69) and Birds of Asia (1850-83), puts me in mind of Walter Lawry Buller's A History of the Birds of New Zealand ((1872-73) for this month's highlight from the Heritage Collections. While not on the grand scale of Gould's publications, the coloured lithographs in Buller's Birds remain equally stunning.

Walter Lawry Buller (1838-1906) was a native New Zealander with a keen passion for natural history ever since he was a schoolboy. At nineteen Buller wrote to the Linnean Society, London, in 1857, and was elected a fellow before he ever published a paper. His first scientific paper, an Essay on the Ornithology of New Zealand written for the 1865 New Zealand Exhibition, received a silver medal and established him as a recognised authority on New Zealand birds. Six years later Buller was awarded an honorary doctorate in natural history from the University of Tubingen thanks to the assistance of German naturalist and ornithologist Otto Finsch.

Buller made plans for a monograph on the ornithology of New Zealand in 1865. By 1871 he had gathered enough material, and negotiated a government grant (by donating his 200 specimens to the Colonial Museum, Wellington) and leave on half pay to travel to London to publish his work. While in London Buller also read law in the Inner Temple and was called to the bar in 1874.

The first part of Buller's Birds was published on 4 April 1872, and the fifth and final part appeared towards the end of March 1873. The individual parts were followed by a run of 500 bound copies sold by private subscription. The Royal quarto was both a commercial and critical success, and won Buller not only acclaim but also the honour of a CMG in 1875. The thirty-six, hand-coloured lithographs by renowned Dutch bird illustrator John Gerrard Keulemans contain almost seventy figures of New Zealand birds. The lithographic stones sadly have not survived. They were destroyed after publication with one theory stating the stones were lost at sea.

Buller, who returned to New Zealand in 1874 to practice law and live the life of a gentleman naturalist, continued to publish scholarly papers. In 1879 he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and the newspapers heralded him as 'the first scientific man, born and educated in any of the colonies, who has received this distinction'.

A second edition of Buller's Birds was published in thirteen parts between July 1887 and December 1888. It included more detailed descriptions than the first edition and the forty-eight chromolithographs by and after Keulemans exhibit eighty species of birds. These illustrations have become standard images of New Zealand birds, a number of which are now extinct or in danger of becoming so. A run of 1,000 copies of the second edition were printed, 251 of which were lost at sea in the wrecks of the 'Matai' and 'Assaye' in 1890. Buller, after emigrating to England in 1899, wrote a two-volume supplemental edition also illustrated by Keulemans. It was published in 1905, just one year before Buller's death.

Of the first edition, OCLC records just over sixty copies in institutional hands. The majority are held, not surprisingly, by libraries in Australia and New Zealand. However, copies can be found in the United States, France, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. A facsimile edition, which reproduced Keulemans forty-eight chromolithographs and was revised and updated by New Zealand ornithologist E. G. Turbott, was published by Whitcombe & Tombs in 1967. An online version of the second edition is available through the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre.


1 comment:

  1. In the late 1940s copies of an edition of Buller's Birds were stored in an open balcony at Canturbury University College, wrapped in heavy brown paper.

    The balcony was not associated with either the library or the Zoology department. Nor was it secured access.

    While not exposed directly to the weather, the atmosphere was such that the art paper page edges were sticking together.

    At the time, we marvelled at the decision to store them in this location and condition.