Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology: birds, books and business

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This post was contributed by Henry McGhie, head of collections and curator of zoology at Manchester Museum.  

The University of Manchester’s cultural institutions are home to millions of objects, specimens, artworks and books. Each of these tells a story, or can tell a story with a bit of detective work. Among these are a collection of bird skins and eggs from Henry Dresser (1838–1915), one of the leading ornithologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dresser had an exciting life: his father was engaged in the Baltic and New Brunswick timber trade, working in London. Henry was sent to Germany and Sweden, alone, as a teenager to be schooled and learn European languages. He worked in the timber business in Finland and New Brunswick, where his father owned an enormous forest and sawmill. Following on from this he spent 14 months in Mexico and Texas at the height of the American Civil War. He settled in the timber and iron trades in London. Throughout his life, Dresser was a most ambitious natural history collector and ornithologist. He played a leading role in scientific societies, at a time when these were being established, as the world’s birds were being discovered and described, and as the bird conservation movement developed. Dresser made extensive collections that formed the basis of over 100 publications, including great illustrated books that combined masterpieces of bird illustration with cutting-edge scientific information. Dresser’s life is explored in the book ‘Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology: birds, books and business’, recently published by Manchester University Press. The book is also an exploration of transformations in 19th and early 20th century ornithology, and the role that private gentlemen naturalists played in a time without institutions or professionals.

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Natural history blossomed in the nineteenth century, as imperial and colonial expansion made inroads into hitherto unknown lands (at least unknown to Westerners). Official collectors accompanied many government, geographical and military expeditions, while even greater numbers of people involved in the machinery of empire took up natural history as a hobby and participated in ‘informal empire’. The subject was dominated by the discovery, description and classification of the world’s wildlife and natural resources. This great endeavour involved enormous numbers of people in a kind of production line connecting those in the field—farmers, lighthouse keepers, indigenous peoples, gamekeepers, fishermen, entrepreneurs—with a natural history readership, mostly in the seats of empire. Great numbers of natural history specimens flooded into ports and cities, with London described as ‘a kind of emporium of the whole world’. Natural history discoveries were presented at scientific meetings, and published in societies’ proceedings and, more especially, in beautiful, hand-coloured plates in subscription books.

The great bird books of the late 19th century were a combination of close observational accuracy, artistic talent, and scientific illustration. They brought to life the preserved remains of birds, many of which still reside in museums today. Among the finest was ‘A History of the Birds of Europe’ by Henry Dresser (1838–1915), begun with Richard Sharpe and issued between 1871–82. The illustrations in the great natural history books were, arguably, among the most beautiful ever produced and brought great fame to their publishers. John James Audubon had his own illustrations produced for his famous (and extremely valuable) ‘Birds of America’, famous (infamous) for both its price and its scale, in Double Elephant Folio size. Among British naturalists, John Gould is especially famous for the beautiful books that he produced (with the assistance of a team of artists, including Edward Lear and Gould’s wife Elizabeth).

Illustrations had been important in ornithology in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as specimens themselves were liable to be destroyed by clothes moths and other insect larvae. A reliable preservative was discovered, in the form of a bar of soap mixed with arsenic and camphor, the lather of which was painted on the inside of bird skins and which was a very effective deterrent. After this time, ornithology blossomed, aided by a number of instruction manuals with detailed instructions on how to prepare birds. For the most part, field collectors prepared birds as study skins: they removed the body via a shallow cut on the breast, cutting it off at the knees, shoulders and base of the skull. The ‘empty’ skin was filled with cotton wool or similar soft material, and positioned to lie on its back, with collecting information written on labels that were attached to the legs of specimens. This standardised preparation method meant that specimens from different places and different people could be amassed together in series of similar specimens, aiding comparison. Indeed, this preparation method is still used in museums, over 150 years later.

The great artists of the mid–late nineteenth century could do an amazing thing: in the days before photography or good-quality printing, and working in Europe, they could take a study skin and imagine what the bird had been like when it was alive, producing beautiful, detailed illustrations that captured the positioning, colouring and patterning of birds as they would have been in life. Joseph Wolf was especially famous and worked as the official artist at the London Zoological Gardens, but developed eye problems. A young Dutch artist, John Gerrard Keulemans, took over from Wolf, and worked at a time when great numbers of bird books were in production. Both Wolf and Keulemans made great use of visits to London Zoological Gardens, the original ‘zoo’, to study the form and attitude of birds when they were alive. The positioning of birds was standardised, so that the more colourful sex (usually the male) occupied the dominant position in plates. Joseph Wolf, who was criticised by some ornithologists as being ‘too much of an artist’, was similarly critical of artists who produced ‘nothing but a map of the animal’. Keulemans was in great demand, and illustrated many (most) of the great birds books produced in Britian in the late 19th century.

Dresser’s collections have much to tell us about both birds, and the ways people have studied and come to know what we know today. In a world where many birds face an uncertain, or all too certain future, Dresser’s collections are a testament both to the foundations of ornithology, and a priceless resource that continues to be made use of by researchers, who use these century old specimens as a source of DNA, to study changes in pollutant levels, and to understand the diversity of the world’s birds. They are very much the building blocks of ornithology.

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