This stunning hand-colored folio lithograph is from Monograph of the Paradiseidae, or Birds of Paradise and Ptilonorhynchidae, and Bower-Birds by Richard Bowdler Sharpe. The work was published in London by Taylor & Francis for Henry Sotheran & Co between 1891 and 1898. The Birds of Paradise was the idea of John Gould’s but completed after his death by Sharpe. The plates were predominantly drawn by William Matthew Hart, John Gould, and John Gerard Keulemans. It was the first monograph devoted to the remarkable birds of paradise and the “last of the fine bird books” (Fine Bird Books p.107)
The remarkable-looking Birds of Paradise have captivated western science since Magellan first brought back a skin of such a creature in 1522. The skins, highly prized by East Indian natives, was given by the ruler of Batchian (in the Mollucas) as a gift to the King of Spain. The legs and wings of the bird, however, had been removed when skinned, presumably to better show its impressive plumage. When asked why the bird had no wings or feet, the natives replied that none were needed as the bird simply floated in its heavenly paradise. Thus, the earliest descriptions of the species, and indeed even its scientific naming by Linnaeus in the 18th century as Paradisaea apoda (legless bird of paradise), perpetuated that myth. Due to the remote nature of their rain forest habitat in New Guinea, it was not until the mid-19th century that these remarkable birds were first scientifically observed and accurately described.
Gould had intended to publish the first monograph devoted to the birds of paradise following completion of his Birds of New Guinea, but he did not live to do so. When Sharpe took over the task of completing that work, he appealed for subscribers for the proposed monograph. The response was clearly enthusiastic as within three years the first part of the present work was published. Some of the plates had previously appeared in Gould’s Birds of New Guinea as “Messrs. Sotheran purchased the stock of Gould’s works after his death [and] acquired the stones with which he had intended to illustrate his Monograph… Many of them were broken or otherwise damaged, and of these some have been redrawn or replaced by new plates by Mr. Hart. Since Gould’s time, however, many marvelous new species have been discovered, and these have been described and figured in the present work” (Appendix).
Fine Bird Books (1990) p.107; Nissen IVB 581; Ripley 263; Wood, p.565; Zimmer, p.581.