BOLTON, James (ca.1735-1799). Figures of the more beautiful British Birds. Painted immediately from Nature. Manuscript on paper. Stannary, near Halifax: [1781-2] 1795.
2° (371 x 282mm). Manuscript title lettered in red and black ink, 1 MS. index leaf signed and dated 1795 giving Linnean nomenclature and common English names, 1 MS "advertisement" leaf by Bolton, signed Stannary 1795, and 40 ORIGINAL DRAWINGS IN WATERCOLOUR AND BODYCOLOUR over black chalk preparation on heavy paper tipped on to the album leaves, each with black double ruled border, Latin and English caption identification, and numbered in upper left corner, most of the drawings signed, and many dated 1781 or 1782. Contemporary red straight-grained morocco gilt, flat spine with single gilt stamp, gilt edges (slightly rubbed, two tears on lower cover). Provenance: Wentworth Henry Canning, 2nd Viscount Allendale (1890-1956, bookplate).
A FINE, UNRECORDED ALBUM of original drawings by the Yorkshire naturalist, James Bolton, and the only surviving witness to his intended series of bird illustrations pre-dating the Harmonia ruralis. A weaver by trade, Bolton was author and illustrator of works on plants, insects, fungi and birds; an art teacher and a talented field naturalist, he gathered specimens around Yorkshire for his own and other collections. The present album consists of drawings made by Bolton in 1781-82, thus a full decade before the publication of his major ornithological work, Harmonia Ruralis: Or an Essay towards a Natural History of British Song Birds. As he writes in the manuscript "advertisement" prefacing the drawings, he had originally intended to draw all small British birds and had set out to sketch them in the fields and woods, "in a state of nature & of liberty." He had not made the drawings for publication but had hoped to find favour with a Lady or Gentleman or "curious naturalist". Such a patron did not appear, and he set aside the series uncompleted, having finished only one of his projected three volumes. It is significant that Bolton took up these drawings again in 1795, when he gathered together this album, adding a manuscript title, index and explanatory preface. The first parts of Harmonia ruralis had been published in 1794, further enhancing his reputation as a bird illustrator, and he presumably wished to capitalize on this by resuscitating this early work.
Although very discreet in his discussion of the intended recipient, there is some evidence that Bolton may have made the drawings for the Dowager Duchess of Portland, or perhaps the Earl of Gainsborough. The Duchess and Gainsborough were both patrons of Bolton and his brother Thomas, and Bolton sent specimens for the duchess's natural history museum, including in 1782 a pair of pied flycatchers, together with their nest and eggs (Jackson p.175). The duchess owned two other albums of bird paintings by Bolton, and his Icones Fungorum was dedicated to her. Had Bolton undertaken his project to draw all small birds with the patronage of the Dowager Duchess of Portland in mind, her death in 1785 would clearly have interrupted his project. Whether she was the intended recipient or not, it was certainly someone of her status whom Bolton sought. Bolton dedicated later volumes of the Icones to the Earl of Gainsborough, and he was employed at the time as art tutor to the daughter of Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet. Finding no patron for his projected bird series in 1781-2, Bolton turned his attention to botanical pursuits. The publication of Harmonia ruralis in 1794-1796 obviated Bolton's plans for a three-volume work on British small birds, and so the present album stands as the only witness to that intended project. BIRD DRAWINGS BY BOLTON ARE RARE INDEED, with no example in the British Museum (Natural History), two single drawings at Knowsley Hall, and the only other recorded albums are from the Portland collection, sold in 1785, one comprising 34 drawings, and another 20 drawings on vellum dating from 1782 with short notes by Bolton. This second album appears to have been sold again in 1954 (Sotheby's sale to Traylen) and 1955 (Traylen sale catalogue, lot 575). See Christine Jackson, Bird Etchings, Ithaca and London: 1985, pp.169-180; J. Edmondson, James Bolton of Halifax, Liverpool: 1995. We are grateful to Christine Jackson for sharing information with us from her forthcoming work Dictionary of Bird Artists of the World (Antique Collectors Club, autumn 1997).