Natural history in the LRI Library

Beyond the books donated to the Liverpool Royal Institution by Benjamin Gibson, the LRI’s library collection was dominated by material printed in the 19th century, with a particular strength in the natural sciences – the library having been developed primarily as a resource to support the Institution’s Museum of Natural History. The Museum was the jewel in the crown of the Institution’s activities. The first catalogue, drawn up in 1826, boasted 2467 specimens of rocks and minerals, 99 mammals and 826 birds – most of which were obtained through gift or deposit.

From “Index testaceologicus; or A catalogue of shells British and foreign, arranged according to the Linnean system”, by William Wood (SPEC Y82.3.18). The LRI Museum had one of the best collection of shells in the country.

Natural history books in the collection included works by some of the most important figures in the running of the Museum, including:

William Swainson (1789-1855), naturalist and artist, played an important role in organising the collections, as well as providing advice on their preservation. Swainson was best known for his illustrations, and the LRI library held a number of works illustrated by him:

Images from “Zoological illustrations, or, Original figures and descriptions of new, rare or interesting animals, chiefly selected from the classes of ornithology, entomology, and conchology, and arranged on the principles of Cuvier and other modern zoologists” by William Swainson (SPEC Y82.3.503-505).

Thomas Stewart Traill (1781-1862), was a physician and expert in medical jurisprudence. He nurtured a wide range of interests however, as evidenced in his being editor of the eighth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Traill became Keeper of the Museum in 1822, and was responsible for the creation of the first catalogue of its holdings (SPEC R.5.24/B). 

A second Liverpool physician, Joseph Dickinson (d. 1865) made a number of important gifts of botanical specimens to the Museum. Dickinson was also a lecturer in medicine and botany at the Liverpool Medical School, and wrote a work entitled The Flora of Liverpool (SPEC R.5.52/B).

And finally, one of William Roscoe’s many interests was botany. As well as being a key figure in the founding of the LRI, he was also instrumental in the creation of Liverpool Botanic Garden (later Wavertree Botanic Garden). In 1828 he wrote Monandrian Plants of the Order Scitamineae: Chiefly Drawn from Living Specimens in the Botanical Gardens at Liverpool:

References: H.A. Ormerod. The Liverpool Royal Institution: a Record and Retrospect. Liverpool University Press, 1953.

Nightingales in Abercromby Square

During the University’s Wellbeing Week Abercromby Square has hosted bird life great and small, from the eagles, owls and falcons of Cheshire Falconry, to postcard-sized ‘Nightingales.‘ A flock of six were released to celebrate the bicentenary of the composition of John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale, in the form of six poems newly-commissioned for Pavilion Poetry.

The poems were also available in support of the RSPB at a talk by the English Department’s Bethan Roberts on Nightingales in poetry and science in the age of Keats. Bethan’s talk, accompanied by recordings of the Nightingale’s song and a display of books from Special Collections & Archives, brought an audience of nearly 50 birdlovers to the School of the Arts Library comprising University staff and students and members of the public from across the Liverpool City Region.

The nine books on display covered Ornithology, Poetry, and the unlikely topic of Nightingales in Liverpool…

  1. Thomas Bewick, 1753-1828 History of British birds. The figures engraved on wood by T. Bewick (Newcastle, 1797-1804). Two volumes. SPEC L45.19-20 (vol. 1 Land Birds, 1797 has woodcut of Nightingale).
    Thomas Bewick, wood engraver, revitalised the art of woodcuts with his detailed natural history illustrations: he was driven to improve on the crude illustrations in the books he knew as a child. His work impressed Matthew Gregson of the Liverpool Print Society, who gave it “the highest Encomiums of Praise”, and commissioned his tradecard from Bewick. The hugely successful  History of British Birds (mentioned in Jane Eyre) illustrates each major British bird species, and has lively ‘tail-pieces’ providing pictorial ironic comment.
  2. Charlotte Smith, 1749-1806 A Natural History of Birds, intended for young persons (London, 1807). JUV.A429.
    Charlotte Smith, poet and novelist, was praised by her contemporaries, including Wordsworth and Walter Scott, for her descriptions of nature. Her works for children were a successful new venture towards the end of her career, including the posthumously published Natural History of Birds, a mixture of description, mythology and fables about birds of Britain and Europe.
  3. Francis Orpen Morris, 1810-1893 A history of British birds (London, 1870). Six volumes. SPEC Ryl.P.3.11-16 (vol. 10 has hand-coloured lithograph of Nightingale).
    Francis Orpen Morris, clergyman and naturalist, collected birds and insects as a child and his writings on natural history were the best-known of his wide-ranging publications. Morris campaigned for the protection of wild birds and co-founded the Plumage League to oppose the extravagant use of bird’s feathers in fashion. The engravings in A History of British Birds are by the renowned woodblock colour printer Benjamin Fawcett.

Some other early ornithological books in Special Collections include:

  • William Yarrell, 1784-1856 A history of British birds illustrated by wood engravings (London, 1837-1845). Three volumes with supplement. SPEC Noble D.20.12 -14
  • Thomas Pennant, 1726-1798 British zoology (London, 1776-1777). Four volumes. SPEC L16.37-40 (vol. 2 has illustration of Nightingale).
  • Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, 1707-1788, The natural history of birds, illustrated with engravings. Nine volumes. SPEC L24.51 (vol. 5 has engraving of Nightingale).
  1. John Keats, 1795-1821 Lamia, Isabella, The eve of St Agnes, and other poems (London, 1820). SPEC J22.28.
    One of the other poems in this book is Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’ This Liverpool volume (presented to the University by Mr S. Samuels in 1947) has a pencil drawing inserted as frontispiece, inscribed on the back ‘John Keats from a Sketch by [Joseph] Severn presented to his kind friend Thos. Pickering by Charles Cowden Clarke’. Correspondence from 1943, when the book was sent to the National Portrait Gallery in London, suggests that Samuels bought the book from the bookseller Elkin Matthews.
  2. John Keats, 1795-1821 Odes, Sonnets and Lyrics (Oxford, 1895). SPEC Noble A.15.29.
    Twenty-five poems by Keats selected by the poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930) and printed at the ‘Arts and Craft’ Daniel Press in Oxford. C.H.O. Daniel (1836-1919), Fellow and later Provost of Worcester College, produced limited editions of high quality on a printing press set up in a cottage in his garden at the college. This volume (no. 27 of the 250 copies printed) was bought by William Noble (1838-1912) who bequeathed his fine collection of private press books to the University and endowed the William Noble Fellowship.
  3. A watch of nightingales: [an anthology of poems on the song of the nightingale] edited by Geoffrey Keynes, Kt., and Peter Davidson. (London, 1981). SPEC S/Z239.2.S885.K41.
    This modern private press book was printed in an edition of 400 copies at the Stourton Press, and uses as its title the collective noun for nightingales. The collection of nearly 50 poems and fragments on nightingales stems from Keynes’s attempts to identify his 1784 etching of a poem ‘To A Nightingale’ as the work of William Blake.

Some other Nightingale poetry in Special Collections:

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem’ in Lyrical Ballads (London, 1798). SPEC Fraser 390 (1890 reprint).
  • John Clare Poems descriptive of rural life and scenery (London, 1821).
    SPEC Fraser 1601 (4th edition)
  • William Blake, ‘Spring’ in Songs of Innocence; Milton ( Many editions in the William Blake collection).
  • Special Collections also holds editions of John Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso’, Paradise Lost, and nightingale sonnet and works by Ovid including the myth of Philomela.
  1. The poetry of birds: selected from various authors; / with coloured illustrations by a lady. (Liverpool, 1833). SPEC J24.59.
    This anonymous work is a compilation of poems about birds, with corresponding hand-coloured illustrations, and additional coloured illustrations of birds pasted in. The text and drawings are the work of poet, editor, artist and writer Hannah Mary Rathbone, née Reynolds (1798-1878), a member of Liverpool’s renowned Rathbone family. The book was printed and published in Liverpool by George Smith at Tithebarn Street, and survives in very few copies.
  2. Liverpool Royal Institution Museum: entries for Nightingale and Blackcap in Catalogue of birds (1836). Liverpool Royal Institution Archive LRI 2/2/1/4.
    The Liverpool Royal Institution was founded in 1814 by a group of Liverpool merchants and professional men, associates of the Liverpool philanthropist William Roscoe (1753–1831). The grade II Liverpool Royal Institution building, which still stands on Colquitt Street, was built in 1799 as a house and warehouse for the merchant and slave-trader Thomas Parr, and adapted to house the LRI’s collections and activities, including the natural history museum. Most of the collections were acquired by gift or deposit, including the nightingale and blackcap (‘the Northern Nightingale’) specimens listed in this catalogue (51 and 52 on the page displayed). The surviving Library and Archive of the LRI are housed in Special Collections. The American naturalist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851) exhibited seven  paintings at the LRI’s 1827 exhibition: two of these, ‘An Otter Caught in a Trap’ and ‘A Pounce on Partridges’, are on display in the VGM’s Audubon Gallery.
  3. John Gould, 1804-1881 A monograph of the Trochilidae or family of humming birds (London: published by the Author, 1849-61). Issued in 25 separate parts; with a 5-part supplement completed by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, 1880-87. SPEC 300.1.
    John Gould was described by Sacheverell Sitwell as ‘model and prototype for the Victorian bearded man,’ and his home in Bloomsbury as ‘a taxidermist’s paradise’. Sitwell also commented that Gould’s illustrations were chiefly drawn by his wife, by Edward Lear, and William Hart. These illustrations (418 in this work alone) were then lithographed and hand-coloured.  The shimmering effect of the birds’ plumage is replicated in the illustrations by the inclusion of gold leaf under a transparent layer of oil paints and varnish (note from catalogue of the Royal Collections Trust). Many of Gould’s works were acquired for the Library of the Liverpool Royal Institution, which is now part of Special Collections.       

Roscoe’s University: Liverpool Royal Institution 1817 – 2017

To celebrate the bicentenary of the Liverpool Royal Institution, opened by William Roscoe on 25 November 1817, an exhibition is on display at the Sydney Jones and Harold Cohen libraries until the end of the year.

In addition, a reading of selected passages from Roscoe’s 80-page opening address will take place in the School of the Arts Library between 3 and 5pm of the 100 year anniversary date, with a tour of the exhibition. The free public event is hosted by Eighteenth-century worlds.

The display in the Harold Cohen cases, including the Toucan from within William Swainson’s Zoological Illustrations (1820) .

The Harold Cohen Library is showcasing scientific books from the Library of the Liverpool Royal Institution, including a selection of coloured plates of insects and birds which made use of the new technique of lithography. The plate of a toucan from the first volume of William Swainson’s Zoological Illustrations (1820; above image) recalls the Google doodle for Swainson’s (224th) birthday in 2013 (below image).  John Blackwall’s A History of the Spiders of Great Britain and Ireland (1861-1864) describes 300 spiders and illustrates 272 of them. It was the life’s work of the Manchester businessman, who retired to North Wales to complete it. The copy in the Liverpool Royal Institution Library was one of the first to be borrowed when rules changed to allow the fee-paying subscribers (“proprietors”) to take books home. The borrower, Rev. H. H. Higgins, had a professional interest, having arranged the invertebrate display in Liverpool’s Free Public Museum when it moved to William Brown Street.

The exhibition in the Special Collections and Archives exhibition area in ground floor Grove Wing, Sydney Jones Library.