A Collection of the Birds of Paradise

Robert Havell Jr. (1793-1878), A Collection of the Birds of Paradise ([London: R. Havell], no date but attributed to 1835). Engraved title page and 22 full-page hand colored aquatints. Signed on flyleaf: R[obert] Lionel Foster, 9 Terlingham G[ar]d[e]ns, Folkestone. Also owned by Major General Sir Rohan Delacombe. Purchased with funds from the Henry Matthews Zeiss Memorial Book Fund, the Graphic Arts collection, and the Princeton University Library. Graphic Arts GAX 2012- in process

Havell’s book was inspired by the ornithological study, Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis et des rolliers (1801-1806), drawn by Jacques Barraband (1767?-1809) and stipple engraved by Louis Bouquet (1765-1814) for François Le Vaillant (1753-1824). Above left, v. 1, plate 3 and above right, v. 1, plate 11. Images (c) NYPL digital website

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Robert Havell’s shop, The Zoological Gallery, at 77 Oxford Street, London. Image reproduced in Francis Hobart Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist (1917).


The Graphic Arts Collection recently acquired one of the rarest and most beautiful of Havell’s solo publications, A Collection of the Birds of Paradise (ca. 1835). While the volume was based on Le Vaillant’s earlier study, Havell redesigned several key artistic elements, beginning with the title page. In an act of inspired creativity, he selected elements from two individual pages that examined the plumage of the males and reconfigured the elongated and elaborate feathers into a compelling title cartouche.


Birds of Paradise was produced during the mid-1830s at Havell’s spacious Oxford Street shop, the Zoological Gallery, where he sold ornithological prints and drawings as well as the birds themselves, stuffed and posed, along with skins or feathers. Havell hunted these birds and other small animals outside London and then, prepared them for sale using his own techniques (Yale University Library holds a notebook where Havell recorded varieties of household recipes and taxidermist instructions).


All aspects of engraving, printing, coloring, bindings, and publishing were available at the Zoological Gallery, thanks to the enormous staff of young women Havell and his wife boarded, trained, and employed. One advertisement reads, “Miss Havell’s Boarding Establishment for a limited number of Young Ladies, in which the comfort and happiness of a home are combined with every instruction suitable to the capacity and age of the Pupils, who are received by the Month or Quarter. Terms may be had at the Zoological Gallery.”


Havell and Audubon were both members of the Zoological Society (instituted 1825) and well acquainted with all the illustrated natural histories, yet it may have been at Audubon’s suggestion that Havell took on the engraving of Le Vaillant’s study. As a young man, Audubon studied briefly in Paris when the original volumes were being released and he owned many of Le Vaillant’s luxurious color plate books in his own library (Audubon’s copy of Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d’Afrique (1799-1808) is now in Cornell University’s library).


Most recently this book belonged to Major General Sir Rohan Delacombe, KCMC, KBE, CB, DSO, KSt (25 October 1906 - 10 November 1991) who was a British military officer. He was the last British Governor of Victoria, Australia. Sir Rohan was appointed as Governor of Victoria in 1963 and his term ended in 1974. Upon his death in 1991, this particular item was part of his library in Australia and was left to his daughter.