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Treasure of the Month

Highlighting some of our most precious historic artefacts, from manuscripts to jewellery.

February 2020: George Edwards, ‘A Natural History of Uncommon Birds: and of some other rare and undescribed animals’, London, 1743-51.

Our Treasure of the Month for February is one of the most important natural history works of the eighteenth century, A Natural History of Uncommon Birds: and of some other rare and undescribed animals, by George Edwards, published in four parts between 1743 and 1751. The three hundred and ten hand-coloured etched plates Edwards produced for Uncommon Birds were such a landmark in natural history publishing that the Royal Society awarded him the Copley Medal (the oldest award of the Royal Society) in 1750; "On account of a very curious Book lately published by him, and entitled, A Natural History of Birds, &c. – containing the Figures elegantly drawn, and illuminated in their proper colours, of 209 different Birds, and about 20 very rare Quadrupeds, Serpents, Fishes, and Insects."

Known as the ‘father of British ornithology’, George Edwards (1694 – 1773) was a pioneering writer and illustrator of birds and natural history. As a young man Edwards was apprenticed to a merchant in London, but decided instead to pursue his interest in natural history, travelling to Norway and France. On his return to England Edwards found he was able to make a living producing sketches of exotic animals for wealthy collectors of natural history. His most important patron was avid collector Sir Hans Sloane, president of both the Royal College of Physicians and of the Royal Society. Sloane’s collections were extensive (after his death the 71,000 items were used to found the British Museum, British Library and the Natural History Museum) and Edwards was frequently employed by Sloane to paint exotic animals, and particularly birds, from life – using both live and dead specimens.

In 1733 Edwards was appointed Beadle (college buildings administrator) to the Royal College of Physicians in London, which provided him with access to an extensive library and a permanent residence. At the encouragement of his employers Edwards created a studio and set up a publishing house within the college, which a decade later resulted in the publication of Uncommon Birds. In addition to the four books of Uncommon Birds, Edwards later published a further three volumes in 1758, 1760 and 1764 entitled Gleanings of Natural History. In total Uncommon Birds and Gleanings of Natural History contain engravings and descriptions of more than 600 birds, animals and insects from around the world, hundreds of which had not been described in print before.

It is this illustration of a dodo for which Edwards is most famous. Edwards never saw a dodo himself, but copied the bird from an oil painting attributed to Roelandt Savery, which had been painted in Holland from a living bird brought from Mauritius. The original oil painting belonged to Sir Hans Sloane, and passed to Edwards after Sloane’s death. Edwards then gave the painting to the Natural History Museum in London in 1759.

Edwards’s beautiful dodo will be on display as part of our ‘Treasures of Durham Cathedral Library: Natural History’ event on Wednesday 12 February. An opportunity to visit the Cathedral’s Refectory Library (not usually open to visitors), the event will display volumes from our natural history collections, including beautiful volumes of botanical illustrations by Johann Sebastian Müller and Peter Simon Pallas; Conrad Gesner’s first great illustrated encyclopaedia of the natural world (1617-21); Jan Swammerdam’s The History of Insects (1758); early examples of nature printing in Johnstone and Croall’s The Nature-Printed Sea-weeds (1859); and The Botanic Garden by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles).

For more information, or to purchase a ticket, please see here: https://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/whats-on/treasures-library-12-2-20

The display will be repeated in the Refectory Library on Saturday 21 March (information and tickets here: https://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/whats-on/library-treasures-21-march