Rothschild | Birds of Laysan
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Introduction to and Bibliographic Description of
Lionel Walter Rothschild- The Avifauna of Laysan (1893-1900)

Table of Contents

The author, Lord Rothschild
The Avifauna
The artist, J.G. Keulemans
The book (Bibliographic description)
-On Rothschild
-On Keulemans
-On the book

Lionel Walter Rothschild

Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), 3rd baronet and 2nd Baron Rothschild, pursued a boyhood interest in natural history to an unprecedented conclusion, devoting his life and his fortune to the acquisition and scientific study of the largest zoological collections ever amassed by a single person.

He was born into the British branch of the fabulously wealthy and influential Rothschild family. His father, Nathan Meyer Rothschild, the first Baron Rothschild, was the first professing Jew to be seated in England's House of Lords. The eldest of three children, Walter was deemed to have delicate health and was educated at home. As a young man he traveled in Europe, attending the university at Bonn for a year before entering Magdalene College at Cambridge. In 1889, leaving Cambridge after two years, he was required to go into the family banking business to study finance. Always rather unworldly about money according to family and friends (although he spent it liberally in pursuit of his zoological collections and research), he evidently lacked any interest or ability in the financial profession, but it was not until 1908 that he was finally allowed to give it up. Already a recognized authority in ornithology and entomology, from then on he devoted himself full-time to his scientific interests. He retired from Parliament in 1910, having served as Member for the Aylesbury division of Buckinghamshire since 1899. He could not, however, retire completely from public life, especially after he succeeded to the title on the death of his father in 1915; as head of the family he assumed numerous civic, political, and religious responsibilities. Among other things, he was active in Jewish causes and was the Lord Rothschild to whom the British Government in 1917 directed the Balfour Declaration, approving a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Despite all of these roles and duties, he remained dedicated to his research and continued publishing important scientific papers and monographs to the end of his life.

His niece Miriam Rothschild, who became a respected entomologist, depicts him as a great favorite with the children in the extended family, but Rothschild himself never married. He suffered from a speech impediment and is said to have been extremely shy. As is sometimes the case, these personal difficulties disappeared when he was speaking about things that interested him passionately. This passion - a single-minded pursuit of and unalloyed delight in his scientific interests - no doubt also gave rise to his notable eccentricities, which included maintaining a zoo of exotic animals and driving a coach pulled by zebras through London, as well as his unorthodox work habits and phenomenal memory.

Rothschild had begun collecting Lepidoptera (butterflies) and Coleoptera (beetles) at age seven, and by the time he was ten he had started a museum in a shed at Tring, the family estate in Hertfordshire where he lived his entire life. He began building a real museum when he came of age in 1889 and opened it to the public in 1892. Having come under the influence of renowned ornithologist Alfred Newton while at Cambridge, his interest in birds moved to the fore for many years; entomology and ornithology remained the focuses of his scientific work for the rest of his life. He built the collections continuously over the decades, until they formed the largest zoological collection ever amassed by a private individual.

Although Rothschild himself traveled and collected in Europe and North Africa for many years, his work and health concerns limited his range, and beginning while at Cambridge he employed others - explorers, professional collectors, and residents - to collect for him in remote and little-known parts of the world. He also hired taxidermists, a librarian, and, most importantly, professional scientists to work with him to curate and write up the resulting collections: Ernst Hartert, for birds, from1892 until his retirement at the age of 70 in 1930; and Karl Jordan for entomology, from 1893 until Rothschild's death in 1937. At its largest, the collection included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds' eggs, 2,250,000 butterflies, and 30,000 beetles, as well as thousands of specimens of mammals, reptiles, and fishes. The bird collection in particular was unparalleled, considered in many ways the finest in the world, and invaluable for the study of geographical variation and other aspects of evolution.

Rothschild was strongly interested in island faunas, geographical distribution and variation, speciation, and extinction of species, all of which play an important role in modern studies of biogeography and in larger issues of ecology and bio-diversity. He and his curators wrote numerous important scientific monographs on various groups of insects and birds, and ornithologists and other scientists from all over the world came to study the collections. Many published in the Novitates Zoologicae, a respected journal that Rothschild established in 1894 for scientific articles about the specimens in the collections. Thousands of new species were described and named (the bird collection, alone, at Tring contained over 2,000 types), and many revisions of higher groups were made.

Rothschild was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Giessen in 1898, was elected a Trustee of the British Museum in 1899, and was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1911.

Added to the normal expenses of a man in his social position (estate, household, employees, charities, civic projects, etc.), the scientific activities which he single-handedly underwrote for decades - collectors, museum, staff, publications, and an untold number of miscellaneous other things - came close to exhausting even a Rothschild's resources. Sadly, for many years he had been the target of unrelenting blackmail arising from a long-ago sexual affair with a peeress, and in 1932 the intense financial pressure of a final demand forced him to sell most of his collection of bird skins to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Upon his death in 1937, Lord Rothschild's remaining collections, the museum in which they were housed, and his superb library of 30,000 scientific reference works and rare books were bequeathed to the British Museum (Natural History), the largest and most significant such donation ever received. With various modern additions, Tring today houses the staff and collections in ornithology of the Natural History Museum, as the BM(NH) is now called. The museum building itself is still open to the public, its exhibits preserved as they were in Rothschild's time.

The Avifauna of Laysan (1893-1900)

In 1890, when Rothschild was 23, he sent a sailor named Palmer on Laysan surrounded by frigate birdsHenry Palmer to the Sandwich Islands (as the Hawaiian Islands had been named by Captain James Cook in the late 1770s) and most particularly to Laysan, one of the Leeward Islands in the Hawaiian archipelago now part of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation. His instructions were to collect as many different birds as possible, with special attention to inter-island variation. Palmer spent over two years at the task, from December 1890 to August 1893, and sent almost 2000 specimens back to Tring, including representatives of 15 species previously unknown to Western science and several species which have since become extinct.

These specimens formed the basis of Rothschild's monograph The Avifauna of Laysan and the Neighboring Islands. The work includes a survey of the literature on the birds of Hawaii to that date, as well as a condensed version of Palmer's collecting diary. Except for its contemporary publication Aves Hawaiienses by Scott B. Wilson and A.H. Evans (London, 1890-99), The Avifauna of Laysan was the only illustrated work on the birds of Hawaii to that time. The text is accompanied by 83 plates, of which 55 are hand-colored lithographs, mostly by John Gerrard Keulemans, drawn from the skins collected and preserved by Palmer.

John Gerrard Keulemans

John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912), a skilled scientific artist in late 19th-century England, became one of the best-known and most prolific bird illustrators in a world exploding with discoveries, descriptions, and publications of species of animals and plants from all over the globe.

The eldest son of a prosperous embroidery manufacturer in The Netherlands, Johannes Gerardus Keulemans, as he was named in Dutch, received a good education as a child and in adolescence the training necessary to join the family business. But it became clear during this time that both his interests and his talents lay in natural history, particularly in field observation and the illustration of birds and other animals. In these pursuits he also learned methods of preserving zoological specimens, and by the age of 19 he was working as a taxidermist (like the great bird illustrators Audubon and Gould before him) supplying prepared bird specimens to the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie in Leiden.

At the invitation of that museum's Director, the renowned zoologist Dr. Herman Schlegel, Keulemans joined an expedition to West Africa in 1865-1866, where his field observations and systematic contributions in ornithology as well as his skills in specimen preparation and illustration proved very useful. Upon his return Schlegel hired him onto the museum staff and supported the development of his artistic abilities in particular. Within a few years Keulemans published a work of his own on cage birds and was receiving commissions for illustrations in a variety of scientific monographs and journals, especially in England.

In 1869 Richard Bowdler Sharpe, ornithologist and Librarian at the Zoological Society of London, hired Keulemans to create the 120 full-page lithographs for his Monograph of the Alcedinidae, or Family of Kingfishers (London, 1868-1871) and convinced him to move to London. From that base he flourished in career-long associations with the most prominent naturalists and scientific institutions in England, illustrating (as artist, lithographer, or both) an extraordinary number of the major ornithological monographs published between 1870 and 1910: works by Sharpe, Elliot, Dresser, Buller, Mathews, Yarrell, Grandidier, Mivart, Lord Lilford, Milne-Edwards, Salvin & Godman, Lydekker, Sclater, and many others including, of course, Walter Rothschild, for whom Keulemans illustrated The Avifauna of Laysan, Extinct Birds (London, 1907), and the Novitates Zoologicae (from 1894 until 1911). In addition, he illustrated many volumes of the British Museum's Catalogue of Birds (London, 1874-1898) and, for decades, the journals of the British Ornithological Union, the Linnaean Society, and the Zoological Society of London. Fluent in five languages, he was also in demand in continental Europe, traveling to France and other countries as his prodigiously busy schedule allowed.

Although drawing from direct observation of the living animal is always preferable and he did so extensively in his early years, through much of his career drawing exotic birds from remote areas of the world Keulemans had to work from skins and stuffed specimens. He developed a rather formal compositional style similar to Gould's, featuring a single bird, or at most a pair, in a perching position amid sparingly suggested backgrounds. Although his drawings are sometimes criticized for a lack of vitality or animation, the style permitted the scientific exactitude that was his goal for the huge of numbers of new species that his illustrations depicted. Keulemans excelled at draftsmanship, and the consistently high standard of scientific precision and accuracy of his illustrations was widely acknowledged and appreciated. In the journal British Birds, G.M. Mathews, the first volume of whose massive Birds of Australia (London, 1910-1927) was Keulemans's last commission, noted that for thirty years he was the unrivalled and unequalled draughtsman of ornithological subjects and that from 1870 to 1900 scarcely any ornithological work of importance was complete without "illustrations by Keulemans."

In illustrating for publication Keulemans created a preliminary sketch, sent it for review and comment by the author of the work, revised the sketch, repeated the comment/revision cycle as many times as necessary, and ultimately produced a final pencil & water-color drawing. Being also, unlike many artists, a skilled lithographer, he then transferred the image to the lithographic stone himself and printed off proof copies. Finally he colored the proofs by hand, as a guide or exemplar for the colorists who handled the hundreds of copies run off for the publication.

The delicate and detailed coloring of natural-history illustrations is crucial to their finished appearance and quality and to their value as scientific illustrations of a species. Naturalists had long recognized the importance of accurate and consistent coloring of plates, but success in this regard was highly variable. While some did the work themselves (Mark Catesby, for example, in the early parts of his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, London, 1731-1743 [sic]), more commonly the scope of such a job limited the author or artist to a supervisory role over the work done by hired colorists, who were often women earning piece-work wages. At least a few authors were fortunate enough as to have the assistance of wife, sister, or daughter in this capacity (for example, Eleazar Albin's Natural History of Birds, London, 1731-1738), and the fact is sometimes mentioned in the work as an assurance of careful attention and accuracy. In Keulemans's time, Bowdler Sharpe's three daughters carried on this tradition, learning the skill and working with Keulemans on the illustrations to several titles. Chromolithography, which was developed in the middle years of the 19th century and became common in its last decades, applied the colors on the stones in the printing process. In theory it achieved a uniformity of coloring among all copies, but it could not come close to producing the precise hues and varied depth of hand-coloring. Only a few of the works to which Keulemans contributed illustrations used chromolithography (e.g., the 2nd edition (London, 1888) - but not the first (London, 1873) - of Buller's Birds of New Zealand, and Lord Lilford's Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands, which contained both chromolithographed and hand-colored plates).

Many of the original water-color drawings for Rothschild's Avifauna of Laysan and other titles which Keulemans illustrated are in the library at Tring. Other collections of his original work are held in the Natural History Museum (London), the McGill University library (Montreal), and the National Library of Australia (Canberra).

Bibliographic description

Lionel Walter Rothschild. The Avifauna of Laysan and the Neighboring Islands: with a Complete History to Date of the Birds of the Hawaiian Possessions. London: R.H. Porter, 1893-1900.
f 598.29969 .R84 Birds [RB]

Text volume

Pagination: xx, xiv, 1-21(Di.)+3 blank, 320 pp. 39 cm.
Collation: a-b4c2d1 [2nd sequence:]a4b2c1 B-H4I2 1-34 K-R4S-T2U-Z4 2A-2T42U22X1.
Format: Imperial quarto.

  [a1] --- Title page
  a2-d1 [i]-xx Preliminary text (including p.[xvii]-xx "List of plates")
  --- --- Front wrapper, Pt. I (recto & verso)
[2nd] a1-c1 [i]-xiv "I. The island of Laysan"
  B1-I1 [1]-58 Text
  [I2]? --- "Errata" slip, tipped on blank leaf
  --- --- Back wrapper, Pt.I (recto & verso)
  11-[33] [1(Di)]-21(Di) "Résumé of Palmer's diary"
  --- --- Front wrapper, Pt. II (recto & verso)
  --- --- "Notice" slip, tipped in
  K1-S2 [59]-126 Text
  --- --- Back wrapper, Pt.II (recto & verso)
  --- --- Front wrapper, Pt. III (recto & verso)
  T2--2X1 127-320 Text, cont. (including supplements, index...)
  --- --- Back wrapper, Pt.III (recto & verso)

Plates volume

Pagination: [83 plates, un-numbered]. 39 cm.
Collation: [No signature marks]

See "List of plates" for plate sequence.

The plates volume lacks a separate title page, and there is no evidence that one was ever issued. The plates were printed by the Mintern Brothers company, and in the 83 total there are:

  • 20 collotype plates: black-and-white photographs of Laysan, birds, etc.;
  • 55 colored plates: 51 plates of birds drawn and lithographed by Keulemans; 4, mainly of eggs, drawn and lithographed by Frohawk; all hand-colored; and
  • 8 lithographic plates: 6 tinted lithographs of Laysan by Frohawk; 2 black-and-white lithographs of bird anatomy by Frohawk.

SIL's volume has all 83 plates called for in the "List of plates," in the exact sequence listed. Numerous plates include captions that are slightly different than those published in the List. In many cases this change in "lettering" is noted in the List entries; in other cases the connection must be inferred from the "var." (variant, or variety) level of the species' scientific name as published in the List. The reader is presumed capable of making these matches between the plate and its listing.

However, the following 3 plates have captions that differ in their generic names from the List, with no note or explanation to connect the two:
XXIII. Sterna lunata in the List, is captioned on the plate: Haliplana lunata.
LIX. Chlorodrepanis virens... in the List, is captioned on the plate: Himatione virens....
LXIX. Rhodacanthis flaviceps in the List, is captioned on the plate: Telespiza flaviceps.

The Avifauna of Laysan was issued in 3 parts (parts I and II in 1893, and part III in 1900) in a limited edition of 250 copies. It was sold by subscription only, with subscribers expected to purchase all parts - no separate or individual parts were to be sold, according to the wrappers of Parts I and II. Each part cost three guineas (£3 3s.), and the high price, presumably resulting at least in part from Rothschild's luxurious production values, placed this important taxonomic work beyond the financial reach of the scientists who needed it, as at least one of his own contemporaries noted. The limited number originally produced, reduced even further by the number of copies that reside in private libraries or have been broken for their plates, has rendered the work relatively unavailable to scientific researchers. Only 24 copies are held by libraries in the United States, as listed in OCLC, RLIN, and The National Union Catalogue: Pre-1956 Imprints. Although a Swiss company seems to have reproduced the work on microfiche in 1983, that version is not listed by any library, and the work has never been reprinted or published in facsimile, as far as can be determined.

SIL's copy retains the original wrappers of all three parts. Part I (containing pages i-xiv, 1-58, and 41 plates) and Part II (pages 59-126 and 15 plates) are dated August 1893 and November 1893, respectively, in type on the front of each wrapper. The versos of these front wrappers have the small rectangular stamp of William Wesley & Son, booksellers in the Strand, London, through whom the parts were purchased. Part III (pages i-xx, 1(Di)-21(Di) +3 blank pages, 127-320, and 27 plates) is dated December 1900 in type on the front wrapper and was date-stamped upon receipt at the Institution on February 11, 1901, on the back wrapper. The dates of the parts are recapitulated on p.ii, at the foot of the second page of the Contents.

The wrappers as well as the text and plates are sparsely annotated in pencil, in the hand of Charles W. Richmond, ornithologist and bibliographer at the Smithsonian from 1895 to 1932. In addition there are various markings, usually penciled on or just behind the title page and the beginnings of the three parts, which reflect the original accessioning and cataloging of the book.

SIL's copy was bound in library buckram in two volumes, the plates separately from the text. The original signatures had been cut, and each leaf of text and plates had been attached to individual hinges. The paper of both the text and the plates is a heavy and glossy one, now brittle and chipping; many leaves had broken loose in both volumes. The decision to digitize the work gave the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' Book Conservation Laboratory the opportunity to remove the text leaves and plates from the stiff hinges and buckram covers and to preserve them in archival enclosures.

The book and its online digital edition have been sequenced in accordance with its original issuance, in that the wrappers have been re-inserted around the text that they originally encompassed. An obvious exception to this has been made for the title page and other preliminary materials, which, as usual, were not issued until the completion of the publication, and for Palmer's diary, which was also issued with part III but is called for in the table of contents between parts I and II.


On Rothschild

Jordan, Karl. [Obituary of] "Lord Rothschild, F.R.S." in Nature, 140, 1937: 574.

--- . "In Memory of Lord Rothschild, Ph.D., F.R.S., J.P." in Novitates Zoologicae, 41, 1938: 1-16.

--- . "Lord Rothschild, 1868-1937" in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol.II: 1936-1938. London, [n.d.]: 385-386.

--- . Dictionary of National Biography. 1931-1940 Supplement. London, 1949: 754-755.

Rothschild, Miriam. Dear Lord Rothschild: Birds, Butterflies and History. London, 1983.

Tate, Peter. Birds, Men and Books. London, 1986.

On Keulemans

Dance, S. Peter. The Art of Natural History. New York, 1978; New York, 1990.

Jackson, Christine E. Bird Illustrators: Some Artists in Early Lithography. London, 1975.

Keulemans, Tony. Feathers to Brush: the Victorian Bird Artist, John Gerrard Keulemans, 1842-1912. Epse, The Netherlands, 1982.

Lambourne, Maureen. The Art of Bird Illustration. Secaucus NJ, 1990.

Mathews, Gregory M. "The late John Gerrard Keulemans" in British Birds, 6(2), 1912: 58.

Pasquier, Roger F. and John Ferrand, Jr. Masterpieces of Bird Art: 700 Years of Ornithological Illustration. New York, 1991.

Skipworth, Peyton. The Great Bird Illustrators and Their Art, 1730-1930. New York, 1979.

On the book

Anker, Jean. Bird Books and Bird Art: an Outline of the Literary History and Iconography of Descriptive Ornithology. Copenhagen, 1938.

British Museum (Natural History). Library. Catalogue of the Books, Mauscripts, Maps, and Drawings in the.... London, 1903-15.

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological John Todd Zimmer. Chicago, 1926.

Nissen, Claus. Die Illustrierten Vogelbücher: Ihre Geschichte und Bibliographie. Stuttgart, 1953.

Sitwell, Sacheverell, Handasyde Buchanan, and James Fisher. Fine Bird Books, 1700-1900. London & New York, 1953; New York, 1990.

Wood, Casey A. An Introduction to the Literature of Vertebrate Zoology, Based Chiefly on the Titles in the Blacker Library of Zoology, the Emma Shearer Wood Library of Ornithology, the Bibliotheca Osleriana and Other Libraries of Mcgill University, Montreal. London, 1931.

And the library databases OCLC and RLIN, and The National Union Catalog: Pre-1956 Imprints.

Leslie K. Overstreet
Curator of Natural-History Rare Books
Special Collections Department
Smithsonian Institution Libraries

February 2002