This extraordinary collection of ornithological watercolours includes drawings executed between roughly 1804 and 1810, and focuses on birds from the Indian sub-continent, particularly those from Bengal. Most of the illustrations show a single bird, often without any background or visual context, but sometimes the bird is shown perching on a bare or leafy branch, or standing on a rock or a grassy mound. All the drawings were numbered by an early hand. Some have the general name of the species (e.g. no. 12, 'Wood Pecker') and others record a more common name (e.g. no. 65, 'Mangoe [sic.] Bird').
The motive behind the compilation and use of these drawings appears to have been both aesthetic and scientific. In a few cases a conclusive scientific attribution is prevented by imaginatively-coloured plumage, although careful inscriptions in two different hands show that those who used this album were interested in identifying the birds depicted. Beside the name of the bird on some drawings are pieces of further information, such as no. 1, 'A kind of Sand Lark, common in Bengal'. On the verso of each drawing an inscription has been added by a later hand; the date of these additions is not known, although the writer's use of John Latham's books suggests a date in the first half of the 19th Century. The writer, in trying to identify the birds, refers to Latham, but it is not clear whether the reference is to his General Synopsis of Birds (1781-1801) or his General History of Birds (1821-24, with an index published in 1828). The references relate to Latham's written descriptions, rather than to illustrations, and the inscriptions do not give enough information to deduce which text was being referred to.
These drawings belong to a tradition of ornithological enquiry in India at the turn of the 19th Century. The two major contemporary sets of bird drawings compiled in Calcutta are those of Marquess Wellesley, Governor General of Bengal from 1798-1804, and of Francis Buchanan (1762-1829), both now in the British Library. As early as 1800 Wellesley ordered birds and quadrupeds to be collected for his College at Fort William, and these were moved to his country seat north of Calcutta at Barrackpore in 1804, where they were placed under the supervision of Buchanan. This collection became known as the Barrackpore Menagerie. Between 1804 and 1808 Buchanan had scientific drawings of both birds and animals executed and sent to London. These are done in a 'scientific' manner showing just the specimen without landscape or shadows but sometimes with a pencil outline of a branch.
Wellesley's own collection is very different to Buchanan's and in its varied contents more similar to this album. It was presumably put together when he was in Calcutta and collected drawings from very different sources, and again in this respect it resembles this album. Both include scientific studies void of landscape and shadows, as well as others which include standardised shadows (seen in paintings in Calcutta and Lucknow from the 1790s); some have painted branches, others a patch of landscape below, and yet others a full landscape. Wellesley's set also includes many with birds sitting in the fully coloured flowering branches in the manner of Lady Impey's earlier set (for which see lots 271 - 272) and this style too is represented in the album.
The artists employed to draw the Buchanan and some of the Wellesley collections were normally employed at the Sibpur Botanic Gardens drawing the extensive collections of plants subsequently known as the Roxburgh Icones. Their names are known from some of the inscriptions on the Buchanan set - Vishnu Prasad, Gurdayal, Haludhar, Mahangu Lal - and it is possible that they also worked on this album.
We are grateful to Peter Olney (previously of the Royal Zoological Society) and Jerry Losty for their assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.