Google Celebrates William Swainson Illustrator, Botanist And 19th Century Lithographer




Google celebrates the illustrations and lithographic skills of the English botanist William Swainson FLS, FRS (8 October 1789 – 6 December 1855). Swainson discovered his love for wildlife, returning with a collection of over 20,000 insects, thousands of species of plants, drawings of around 120 fish and hundreds of bird skins.He is thought to be the first naturalist to use the lithographic process of printing, that used an image drawn with fat or oil onto a stone or metal plate.

Apart from the common and scientific names of many species, it is the quality of his illustrations that he is best remembered for. His friend William Elford Leach, head of zoology at the British Museum encouraged him to experiment with lithography for his book Zoological Illustrations (1820–23). Swainson became the first illustrator and naturalist to use lithography, which was a relatively cheap means of production and did not require an engraver. He began publishing many illustrated works, mostly serially. Subscribers received and paid for small sections of the books as they came out, so that the cash flow was constant and could be reinvested in the preparation of subsequent parts. As book orders arrived, the monochrome lithography prints were hand-coloured, according to colour reference images, known as ‘pattern plates’, which were produced by Swainson himself. It was his early adoption of this new technology and his natural skill of illustration that in large part led to his fame.

When Leach was forced to resign from the British Museum due to ill health, Swainson applied to replace him, but the post was given to John George Children. Swainson continued with his writing, the most influential of which was the second volume of Fauna Boreali-Americana (1831) which he co-authored with John Richardson. This series (1829–1837) was the first illustrated zoological study to be in-part funded by the British government. He also produced a second series of Zoological Illustrations (1832–33), three volumes of Jardine’s Naturalist’s Library, and eleven volumes of Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopedia; he had signed a contract with Longman to produce fourteen illustrated volumes of 300 pages in this series, one to be produced quarterly.


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