Little Egret Heron, from Prideaux John Selby, Illustrations of British Ornithology, 1833.
Green Lapwings, from Prideaux John Selby, Illustrations of British Ornithology, 1833.

34. Selby, Prideaux John (1788-1867).
Illustrations of British Ornithology.
Edinburgh: Printed for the proprietor, and pub. by W.H. Lizars [etc.], 1833.

Prideaux John Selby’s ornithological work is often overshadowed by that of John James Audubon and John Gould, but unjustly so.  Well before anyone had heard of either Audubon or Gould, Selby conceived the idea of publishing an illustrated book depicting, life-size, every bird species that could be found in the British Isles.  He made most of the drawings himself, but many were contributed by his brother-in-law, Robert Mitford.  Selby had a large estate in Northumberland, on the English coast just south of Scotland, and many of his birds were observed there.  Wanting to have control over the entire image printing process, he sent Mitford to Newcastle to learn engraving and etching from none other than John Bewick.  Mitford then taught the process to Selby.

There is something about herons that draws out the best in a bird artist.  Selby’s Little Egret Heron can take prideful place with the herons by Edward Lear, John James Audubon, and Mark Catesby.  And his Green Lapwings may contain a playful gibe at Audubon.  We know Audubon visited Selby and drew a Lapwing as a house-warming present.  It is not hard to imagine that the contorted male lapwing in Selby’s illustration might represent the Audubon style of ornithology.

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