Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Henry McGhie's "Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology"

Henry A. McGhie is the Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, the University of Manchester.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, books and business, and reported the following:
From pages 98-99:
Background to A History of the Birds of Europe

The instigator of the History of the Birds of Europe was Richard Sharpe, who, early in 1870, proposed to Dresser that they go into partnership to produce a great encyclopaedia on the birds of Europe. The project required access to the very best specimen collections and libraries, whether in museums or private hands, as they were the most basic source of information on what species occurred where. New collections would also need to be acquired from explorers and other collectors. Sharpe had neither the opportunity nor the financial ability to produce such a collection, so he needed a ‘collecting partner’ if he hoped to produce his encyclopaedia. Dresser fitted the bill perfectly: he owned a good collection of European birds and their eggs; he could acquire more good specimens from his contacts and access the collections of other BOU members, and he could make sense of the literature on birds published in other European languages. Just as importantly, he was ambitious and able enough to take on the project.

Sharpe and Dresser intended the book to cover the latest stage of knowledge of the species that were found in Europe. The two partners had plenty to do: the last significant book on the subject in English had been John Gould’s The Birds of Europe, published in five volumes during 1832–37 (his The Birds of Great Britain, 1862–73, covered many of the same species, but did not review the wider literature). Charles Bree’s A History of the Birds of Europe, Not Observed in the British Isles, issued over 1859–67, was an inferior work. These books represented the ‘competition’. Information on European birds was scattered among books and journals in different languages, in the unpublished notes of colonialists and travellers, and on the labels attached to the legs of bird specimens. Information was of variable quality and reliability, and many species were as good as unknown. Large quantities of information had been generated about birds, in Europe and elsewhere, which meant that an authoritative ornithology on European birds was much needed.
Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology: birds, books and business is an exploration of the life of Henry Dresser, one of the leading, and most productive, ornithologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The book is more than just his story, but is an exploration of science and ornithology when the world was opening up (and being opened up) by travel and exploration, and when wealthy and ambitious private individuals (‘amateurs’) led natural history society, in the absence of professions and institutions. Dresser produced enormous bird books, by private subscription, that were a combination of the very latest scientific information and masterpieces of bird illustration by the most famous scientific illustrators of the day. The ‘page 99 test’ posits that page 99 should give a good idea of the overall standard of a book. In the case of this book, page 99 is unusually well-placed to set out the entirety of the book. The reason for this is that the History of the Birds of Europe, described on page 99, was Dresser’s magnum opus and most famous work. The book was both a bringing together of various strings of Dresser’s bow, and his biggest adventure. If we take a ‘hero’s journey’ approach, the work on the History of the Birds of Europe was Dresser’s quest. The scientific work that resulted from it, presented in his great books, was the treasure that he brought back for science, as a lasting legacy and basis from which further scientific work could proceed; the book, and the collections it was based on continue to provide scientists with a wealth of information on birds and their distribution. Page 99 explains how Dresser – ambitious, able and wealthy, and fascinated by birds – put his full energy behind the History of the Birds of Europe project. This brought him in contact with an incredibly diverse set of travellers, scientists, museum workers, and also country people, farmers, gamekeepers, lighthouse keepers, whalers, missionaries and many more. Dresser gathered their personal experiences and bird specimens and worked them together to produce a standard, globalized set of information on the birds of Europe, and their distribution in other parts of the world, in remote Central Asia, in China and Japan, India, Africa and North America. Quite an adventure, which forms an important part of Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology.
Learn more about Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue