Monday, October 15, 2012

Authors and Illustrators of Bird Books. Pt. IV: John Abbot

John Abbot was a different type of illustrator to those previously discussed here. Whereas they all produced engravings of their paintings to enable multiple copies to be printed in book form Abbot was a water-colourist and the vast majority of his paintings were one-offs either commissioned by acquaintances or painted for sale on the open-market. He charged about 6 cents per painting! And he produced thousands of them, most of which were insects.

John Abbot was born on 1st June 1751 in London and died January 1841 in Georgia. He travelled out to Virginia in 1773 to collect natural history specimens. Collecting natural history specimens and shipping them back to Britain could provide enough funds for a fairly comfortable living as there was quite a market for insects, birds, minerals etc. There were enough wealthy collectors who were willing to pay good prices. Abbot lived in Virginia until December 1775 but at the outset of the Revolutionary War he moved to Georgia. Here he lived out the rest of his life collecting specimens and shipping them back to Britain. At least twice his boxes of specimens and paintings were lost at sea and once all were burnt in a blaze on land.

He produced at least 5000 illustrations, possibly thousands more – he was painting for over 65 years! The total number of paintings that he made, or that still exist, will probably never be known. Many of the extant illustrations are in the Natural History Museum, London; Houghton Library, Harvard University and the British Museum, London and at least 15 other libraries and museums around the globe. Many are in private collections.
As he did not write or illustrate any books directly it is difficult to find any examples of his work. The only publication to bear his name was The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia, whose primary author was James Edward Smith. This being a book on butterflies and moths it is thin on bird illustrations! Abbot was a supplier of illustrations for other authors. The earliest set of his bird illustrations was completed in 1791 and sent to his agent in London, Francillon. These paintings were the first of many hundreds to be bought by private collectors and by the authors of ornithological works. Abbot’s paintings are among the earliest representations of the birds of North America. He is considered a pioneer of American ornithology and  in 1809 he met the American ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1831). Wilson, the ‘father of American ornithology’, had come to America from Scotland, and had embarked on a nine volume work, American Ornithology (1808-13). Abbot provided Wilson with many illustrations for his books.
In 1997 Beehive press published a book of some of Abbot’s bird plates called John Abbot’s Birds of Georgia: Selected Drawings from the Houghton Library, Harvard University. It’s not cheap…if you can find a copy. A good read is Pamela Gilbert’s: John Abbot: Birds, Butterflies and Other Wonders, (NHM 1998).
The species’ names used by Abbot for his illustrations were often very different to those in common usage today. Test yourself! What are the species in the following Abbot paintings now known as?
                                                                                          Black Cheak
                      Broad Tail            
                                                                                               Flat Head
                                                                              Little Brown and White Duck
                                                                                               Roan Duck
                                                                                                  White or Red-Billed Curlew

His illustrations are considered by many to be fine and realistic renditions. But, again I find them to be flat and a little wooden. They all lack any detailed background or foliage, with birds perched on a twig or log. Some of the colouring looks a little childish as though he had used some bits of crayon

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