Alexander Wilson, 1766-1813
Audubon's immediate precursor in American bird illustration was the Scots immigrant, Alexander Wilson. Wilson had spent his early working years as a weaver and peddler in Paisley, Scotland, while nursing the hope of poetic recognition. In the charged political atmosphere of 1790's Scotland, he was imprisoned for nearly two years for writing a sharp political satire, and in 1794 he emigrated to Pennsylvania, supporting himself as a schoolmaster. There, in the library of a neighbour, the American naturalist William Bartram, Wilson discovered the limitations of earlier books on American ornithology, and planned his major work.
Wilson as Poet
Burns, Robert, 1759-1796; Wilson, Alexander, 1766-1813; Ramsay, Allan, 1686-1758.
Four funny tales: Alloway Kirk or Tam O'Shanter, Watty and Meg or The wife reformed, The loss of the pack, and The monk and the miller's wife.
Air: Printed by J. & P. Wilson, 1802. G. Ross Roy Collection.
--Like his better-known contemporary Robert Burns, Wilson had first come to public attention as a poet, with a locally-published collection, Poems (Paisley, 1790, also in the Roy Collection). This rare chapbook (not listed in Burns bibliographies or in the standard Harvard Chapbook Catalogue) reprints Wilson alongside Burns and Burns's major 18th century predecessor Allan Ramsay.
Wilson's American Ornithology
Wilson, Alexander, 1766-1813.
"Orchard Oriole," pl. 4, vol. 1, 1808,
in American ornithology; or, The natural history of the birds of the United States: illustrated with plates, engraved and colored from original drawings taken from nature.
9 vols. Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1808-14. Rebound.
--Wilson's American Ornithology was published by subscription over a number of years, with the final volume completed after Wilson's death by his friend George Ord. Wilson's purpose was scientific, rather than aesthetic, and his plates characteristically present a number of related species, accompanied by text, rather than focusing on one bird or pair of birds.
Bartram, William, 1739-1823.
Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee country, the extensive territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek confederacy, and the country of the Chactaws; containing an account of the soil and natural productions of those regions; together with observations on the manners of the Indians.
London: Reprinted for J. Johnson, 1792. Modern quarter calf. Richard Wingate Lloyd Collection.
--William Bartram of Philadelphia, son of the pioneer American naturalist John Bartram, had traveled widely in the southeast in the seventeen-seventies. This account, first published in Philadelphia in 1791, drew attention to the unrecorded natural riches of North America; for birds alone, Bartram recorded 215 species.
Wilson writes to Bartram about publishing his Ornithology
Grosart, Alexander Balloch, 1827-1899, ed
The poems and literary prose of Alexander Wilson, the American ornithologist. For the first time fully collected and compared with the original and early editions, mss., etc. . . . with memorial- introduction, essay, notes, illustrations, and glossary.
2 vols. Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1876. Large paper copy. Contemporary green half morocco.
--the letter shown here, from Wilson to William Bartram, dated April 8, 1807, discusses Wilson's Prospectus inviting subscriptions for his American Ornithology and illustrates the close relation between Wilson and his American mentor.
Alexander Wilson's Carolina Parrot
Wilson, Alexander, 1766-1813.
"Carolina Parrot," pl. 26,
in American ornithology; or, The natural history of the birds of the United States. Plates.
New York: Harrison Hall; Philadelphia: Collins & Co., 1829.
--this plate is shown from the posthumous reprint of Wilson's work, overseen by his friend George Ord. The antebellum college library also has a set of the 4-volume second series, extending Wilson's approach to further species, published by Charles Bonaparte (1825-1833).