Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nouvelles Illustrations de Zoologie

The Pink coloured Warbler

 Glinting within the depths of Newnham Library's special collections, there is to be found a particularly bright and eye-catching first edition of Nouvelles Illustrations de Zoologie or, New Illustrations of Zoology (1776, London) by Peter Brown. The reason for this French-English dual title is that this work is written in parallel French and English texts. It therefore forms part of our Anglo-French commerce exhibition mentioned in earlier posts.

Title page and 'Tawny Vulture' plate

Peter Brown, thought to be Danish, was a natural history illustrator and botanical draughtsman for the Prince of Wales; as a result, many of his works were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London between 1758 and 1799, during his period of prominence.[1][2] Nouvelles Illustrations de Zoologie is perhaps his most famous achievement, 'containing fifty coloured plates of new, curious and non-descript birds, with a few quadrupeds, reptiles and insects.'[3] The phrase 'non-descript' seems particularly ironic in that there is such acute attention to detail both in the illustrations and  descriptions of each of these birds. Throughout, the book presents images and details of specimens from Marmaduke Tunstall's natural history collections, the British Museum and the Royal Society. Several of the plates, Brown tells us in his preface, are copied from the 'elegant drawings' of Gideon Loten from his travels in the Islands of Java and Ceylon.

The blue-bellied parrot

Brown charmingly presents his book in the preface:

'The British Public, never deficient in encouraging works which faithfully represent such productions of nature as have not been seen or published before, is here offered a volume of animals never described and drawn.'[4]

This may seem like quite a claim indeed, but certainly, Brown's testimony of the work's uniqueness seems founded through its delicate and individually painted plates. Each plate has been hand painted and the edges very carefully followed. It is only on very close inspection (and very worthwhile inspection!) of the edges that you can see moments where the paint meets the lines.

'Never described and drawn' is certainly true in the case of 'The blue-bellied parrot/Le Perroquet a ventre bleu' which is the earliest published illustration of this Australian bird from New South Wales. Details, as for each specimen, are given here, including:

‘Bill, of a reddish colour
Head, of a rich dark blue, beautifully mixed with small feathers, of a light blue….
Belly, of a fine blue.
Thighs, green and yellow,
Back: and wings, green; the primaries dusky, barred with yellow.’[5]

The Cinereous Tortoise
Brown ends his preface:

'I can say nothing myself on the Execution and Colouring of the Plates, but leave it entirely to the impartial Public to judge of their merit, and to encourage the artist accordingly; hoping that even my feeble efforts...together with the Novelty of the Animals represented, will prove acceptable to my generous patrons.' [6]

This really is a beautiful, informative book which maintains a quirkiness all of its own. Any 'patrons' of Newnham Library today, we believe would reassure Brown that his efforts were far above and beyond merely 'acceptable'.
If you would like any further information please email 

Polly Harper, Library Graduate Trainee 2011-12

[1] Druett, Joan, "The remarkable story of Tupaia's pet bird", World of the Written Word. [Accessed 27th September 2012]
[2] "Peter Brown", RA Collections: Works of Art, Books & Archives. [Accessed 27th September 2012]
[3] Brown, Peter, "Preface", Nouvelles illustrations de zoologie: contenant cinquante planches enluminées d’oiseaux curieux, et qui n’ont etés jamais descrits, et quelques de quadrupeds, de reptiles et d’insectes, avec de courtes descriptions systematiques (London: Imprimé pour B.White, 1776), n. p.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid. Plate XIV, n. p.
[6] Ibid. "Preface", n. p.

"Peter Brown". [Accessed 27th September 2012]

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