This week, our “Book of the Week” is just two pages of a book. This hand-colored etching of a wren and its accompanying description are from William Lewin’s publication, The Birds of Great Britain, Systematically Arranged, Accurately Engraved, and Painted from Nature, which was published in London by J. Johnson in eight volumes, between 1795 and 1801.
William Lewin was trained as an artist and printmaker and specialized in natural subjects. His most important work was his 1789 publication, The Birds of Great Britain, with Their Eggs, Accurately Figured. This edition comprised only 60 copies, but all of the 323 of its images of birds and eggs were original watercolors by Lewin. Based on this work, Lewin was granted membership in the prestigious Linnean Society.
The volumes from which these pages came was a reissue of that earlier work. But this edition included entirely new images, etched and hand colored this time. This eight-volume, encyclopedic work on the birds of Great Britain contains 336 images, but only the the first 103 were produced by William. He died unexpectedly in 1795 and his sons, Thomas and John, finished the project, engraving two-thirds of the images.
Our little common wren was made by John William Lewin. His signature “J. W. Lewin” appears at the bottom of the image. Notably, the etching was made two years before William’s death, so he may have always intended for his son’s work to appear in this volume. The phrase, “Publish’d as the Act directs,” which follows his signature, appeared on many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English prints, and seems to refer to the Statute of Anne, which was enacted in 1709 and was the first copyright law in Great Britain.
Below are details of the pages we have in the Department of Art and Design at MTSU. A digital copy of six of the eight volumes of Lewin’s work (which is housed in the New York Public Library) is available to be viewed through the Hathi Trust. Our pages are from vol. IV.
An interesting aspect of this letter-press page is that it has a feature that was about to disappear from English printing. As you read the text, you will notice that, although the capital S and the s at the end of words looks like the s we are used to seeing in modern printing, the lower-case s at the beginning and in the middle of the words looks similar to a lower-case f. This known as a “long s” and its use goes back many centuries and was first used in manuscript hands. The long s in Lewin’s publication was one of its last occurrences in England. The use of the short s was already becoming more common throughout the 1790s and almost no English printers used the long s after about 1800.
Another aspect of this example to discuss is the fact that it consists as fragments of a much larger work. The removal of leaves from books was a common practice, as copperplate illustrations were taken from their original locations to be collected or displayed. Consequently, very few copies of the original set of Lewin’s volumes survive intact. The nineteenth century saw many books, and even medieval manuscripts, taken apart in this way. Unfortunately, the dismantling of books sometimes still happens today, as a book dealer may make more money by selling individual pages to many buyers, rather than selling the book intact to a single buyer.
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