The most notable of his mammal studies are the monkeys (which were not shown together with birds in the same print). Edwards also illustrated lemurs, a sloth, and a zebra. Distinctly 18th century in conception and style, Edwards’ primates are generally shown seated against a white background on a patch of ground, holding fruit or nuts, and gazing at the viewer. Despite the attention to scientific accuracy displayed in Edwards’ work, there is a whimsical quality to these depictions, imbued as they are with human-like facial expression, and even poses — one grasps a staff, and another hugs a domestic cat.
Edwards’ natural history prints were issued in two works, now generally considered a unified one. Plates 1 to 210, birds and animals, were published in A Natural History of Uncommon Birds (1743-1751). Plates 211 to 362, which added more birds and animals, were published in Gleanings of Natural History (1758-1764). These works were both reissued in 1805-06, with fine coloring that some contemporary scholars even viewed as an improvement over the earlier editions. In the late 18th century, translations of Edwards’ works also appeared in French, German and Dutch. Another work with an engraved portrait of Edwards, Memoirs of the Life and Works of George Edwards, was published in 1776.
George Edwards was born in Essex, England. He studied art in Holland, but found his true vocation in 1718, when he traveled to Norway and studied the birds that lived on the rocks and in precipices there. With the materials he had collected, he applied himself to the study of natural history, making colored drawings of birds and animals, and continued his studies in Holland. Edwards also mastered etching with the assistance of the leading 18th Century British natural history artist Mark Catesby (1683-1749). In the mid 18th Century, Edwards published A Natural History of Uncommon Birds (1743-1751), followed by its continuation work Gleanings of Natural History (1758-1764), collectively having 362 prints of birds and animals in natural settings.
Edwards made considerable contributions to the study of birds, and held numerous positions as a scholar and scientist. Indeed, he is generally considered the father of modern British ornithology. In 1733, he was appointed as Librarian at the Royal College of Physicians. Edwards also served as secretary to Sir Hans Sloane, who had a private museum and was president of the college and of the Royal Society. Edwards was honored with the Gold Medal of the Royal Society and elected a Fellow. Edwards’ descriptions and pictures of birds provided reference material for the renowned Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), who gave scientific names to 350 bird species described by Edwards.
Condition: Generally very good with the usual overall light toning and wear. Some with minor faint scattered occasional soiling, foxing, offsetting. Prints presumed from 18th Century edition, though conceivably from 1805-06 reissue.
Pasquier, Roger F. and Farrand, John Jr. Masterpieces of Bird Art: 700 Years of Ornithological Illustration. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991. pp. 62-67.
Redgrave, Samuel. A Dictionary of Artists of the English School: Painters, Sculptors, Architects, Engravers and Ornamentists. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1874. p. 134.
See also: Anker 124-26; Fine Bird Books (1990) p.93; Lisney pp.128-44; Mullens & Swann p.195; Nissen IVB 286-88; Zimmer pp. 192-98.