Thursday 23 August 2018

The Birds of Jamaica

Freeman and Wertheimer describe this as ‘one of Gosse’s most important books and perhaps the most enduring of them all’.

The publisher Van Voorst severely overestimated the demand for the book however.

The same first print 1847 edition appeared in a variety of bindings over the years. The book was still available at the original price in 1880, and new copies were again available 30 years later as remainders in John Wheldon and Co’s catalogue.

I have three examples in my library.


Of my three books, only this one is listed in Freeman and Wertheimer. It is down as 27d, described exactly as seen.

My own book carries some notable additions as seen in the photographs.

The bookplate of Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee is on the left hand front endpaper.

This bookplate has a wonderfully elaborate image of armorial bearings, possibly associated with his De Schauensee name, which does have a ring of nobility about it. 

De Schauensee (1901 - 1984) was curator of birds at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia for nearly fifty years. He was particularly noted for his study of South American birds.

The right hand front endpaper is inscribed with ‘Jamaica 1887’.

Stuck down on to the right hand front endpaper is a press cutting. The golden wedding of Sir Edmund Gosse (P. H. Gosse’s son), provides the occasion for a Gosse anecdote.

‘In his diary for 1849, the elder Gosse made this quiet entry: “E. delivered of a son. Received green swallow from Jamaica.”’

The bird arrived two years too late and there is no mention of a green swallow in The Birds of Jamaica.

The title page is inscribed with ‘Kingston Jamaica Oct. 1887’.


This variant binding of the first edition is in all respects bar one the same as the one numbered 27a in Freeman and Wertheimer. The exception is in the author attribution on the spine, which on my book reads simply - ‘P H Gosse’. On the book listed as 27a it reads ‘By Philip H. Gosse’


This final variant is a one-off leather binding of the same 1847 book. The spine is a repair done circa 1993 as a project to match this book to a book box containing the separately published illustrations to The Birds of Jamaica. This latter item will be described in a later blog post.

Most notable on this book is the beautiful Victorian marbling to the front and back end papers.

Ownership inscription of Thomas Harney.

This is most likely to be the Thomas Harney (?- 2011)of the Smithsonian Institution where he worked for many years as a Science writer at the Museum of Natural History.

© John Dunn.