Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Authors and Illustrators of Bird Books. Pt I: Henry Gardiner Adams.

What do I know about Mr Henry Gardiner Adams? Virtually nothing is the answer. Hours of searching on the internet has proved mostly fruitless. What little I have pieced together amounts to this: he was English and he was born in 1811 or 12 and he died in 1881. He was the author of at least four bird books along with a small number of other books. He was also a fan of the unfeasibly long book title. In 1851 he slung this little number into the Victorian bird-book mix: Favourite Song Birds; Containing a Popular Description of the Feathered Songsters of Britain; With an Account of Their Habits, Haunts and Characteristic Traits. Interspersed With Choice Passages From the Poets and Quotations From Eminent Naturalists. Not much doubt about the contents of this then. Published in London in 16mo format it contained 12 coloured lithographs by Edward Gilks as well as those mouth-watering choice passages.
I'm not keen on the lithographs, they are too naive and twee. The birds are lifeless and shallow and they fail to excite  This pair of Bullfinch is typical. Each plate has a pair of rhyming couplets, the scientific accuracy of which is, at the very least, questionable.
All twelve plates are very similar and all were executed by Gilks who emigrated to Australia in 1853. He was a trained lithographer and taught art both privately and at the City of London Mechanics Institute
 I recently saw a first edition of this book in quality leather binding for sale at £80.00. One for the serious collector I would say as both the text and the plates are an acquired taste!
In 1854 Adams followed up this gem with another belter sporting the pithy title: 'Nests and Eggs of Familiar Birds Described and Illustrated; With an Account of the Haunts and Habits of the Feathered  Architects, and Their Times and Modes of Building.'   Feathered Architects!!
The first edition, published in crown 8vo, was illustrated with 8 coloured lithographs of eggs and a second edition in 1871 had double this number.  In a brilliantly understated opening the author asks younger readers not to be frightened by ‘two or three hard names which I will place before you’ then he whacks them with: oology, incubation and nidification then, quite rightly I'd say, he chastises boys, especially idle and mischievous ones who are too much addicted to bird nesting.

Here we have representations of the eggs of: Ptarmigan, top; Grey Partridge, left middle; Quail, right middle and Common or Bearded Bustard (!) at bottom. I presume that these plates were painted by Adams.

1856 saw the publication of 'Humming Birds: Described and Illustrated by H G Adams' etc, etc and so on for another three lines. This was a general and popular account of the family of Hummingbirds. On pp. 109-144 is found ‘My Humming Birds’ by C. W. Webber and to this all of the plates belong. This would be Charles Wilkins Webber the 19th century American journalist, author and explorer. He was a friend of J. J. Audubon, probably a Texas Ranger, once had his horses pinched by Comanche Indians and died in a skirmish which is a little less messy than a bloodbath!

The book contained eight coloured lithographs and was published in London as a single volume crown 8vo.
The Hummingbird plates are slightly more animated but still leave a fair bit to be desired as regards artistic merit. It is notoriously difficult to capture the metallic, shimmering and brilliant colours of Hummingbirds so some credit should be given to Adams for his attempt.

‘The Smaller British Birds With Descriptions of Their Nests, Eggs, Habits, Etc. Etc. Etc’ hit the shelves of all good bookshops in 1874. Credited to H. G. Adams and H. B. Adams – his wife, brother, son, mother? It was illustrated with 32 coloured lithographs of both birds and eggs and published in a single 8vo volume

'There are some subjects of which the public is never tired of reading, nor authors of writing, and one of these is birds.’ So begins this volume and I whole heartedly agree!

The plates in this volume are much busier than in his earlier books. Each one of the bird plates depicts a number of species, brightly coloured and, unfortunately, in some, peculiar and unnatural poses such as this crash-diving spine- bending Goldfinch. They have a certain Christmas card appeal. The plates of the eggs are flat and show little variation for any given species but they are a helpful aid to the accompanying text. As with Favourite Song Birds this volume is very much for the specialist collector or for a birder with a sense of history and an even bigger sense of humour. Again I have recently seen a first edition of this book for sale at around the £70.00 mark.

In 1856 H. G. had time to think up this snappy title to a 75 page pamphlet on shells: 'Beautiful shells : their nature, structure, and uses familiarly explained; with directions for collecting, cleaning, and arranging them in the cabinet; descriptions of the most remarkable species, and of the creatures which inhabit them; and explanations of the meanings of their scientific names, and of the terms used in conchology'.
He also wrote a couple of books on cage-birds, flowers, butterflies and women in history viz: A Cyclopedia of Female Biography: Consisting of Sketches of all Women Who Have Been Distinguished by Great Talents, Strength of Character, Piety, Benevolence, or Moral Virtue of Any Kind. You get the idea!

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