Aves, Birds


Figures 1 and 2 depict two small hummingbirds, each of which appear to be either plummeting from a height or flying at a downward angle. The large bird below them, figure 4, is a Bird of Paradise, and is also flying or falling in a diagonal descent. Figure 3 depicts another hummingbird, slightly larger than the first two, resting on its nest. A tiny egg (figures "A" and "B") floats upright on either side of the nest.

Accession Number: 

Thordarson T 4136
The British Museum

The doors to the British Museum opened to the public in 1759. Although officially founded by an Act of Parliament passed on June 7, 1753, the collections which formed the original content of the museum belonged to three men: Sir Robert Cotton (1570-1631), Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (1661-1724), and Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) (Crook 44). Both Sloane, dubbed “the foremost toyman of his time” by the poet Edward Young, and his collection were already famous by the time George II purchased them for the museum in 1753 (Young 97). The new museum, which prominently displayed Sloane’s natural and man-made curiosities, was a success. A review published in the July 1788 issue of The New London Magazine praises the particular merits of the Sloaniana, “which excite in the contemplative mind the most exalted ideas of divine wisdom in the creation of nature, and prove at the same time a striking monument of human industry” (“An Account of the British Museum” 378).

Visitors to the British Museum had to apply in writing for tickets, but, as a public institution maintained by government funds, admission was free. As a reviewer wrote in 1839, “The cheapest by far of our public exhibitions as well as in other respects the best, is the British Museum, for that costs nothing” (“Synopsis” 299). Museum policies limited both the number of visitors and the amount of time they were given to look at the exhibits; in 1762, R. Dodsley recorded the rules as follows: “fifteen Persons are allowed to view it in one Company; the Time allotted is two Hours” (xxii-xxiii). In spite of these limitations, the exhibit rooms were frequently over-crowded and the museum-going experience was often harried:
Among the Numbers whom Curiosity prompted to get a Sight of this Collection, I was of Course one; but the Time allowed to view it was so short, and the Rooms so numerous, that it was impossible, without some Kind of Directory, to form a proper Idea / of the Particulars. (Dodsley xiv)
Eric Gidal notes that the British Museum was unique in this unprecedented degree of access granted to the public: "As an institution founded ‘not only for the inspection and entertainment of the learned and curious, but for the general use and benefit of the public,’ the British Museum marked a union of legitimization and freedom both aesthetic and social" (21). With free admission came crowds, and with those crowds came anxiety regarding who ought to see the collections as well as how they ought to be seen. Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the museum continued to gain popularity. By 1805, 12,000 people visited annually. By 1817 that number grew to 40,000, and by 1833 over 210,00 people came each year to see the collections (Goldgar 229-30). As many reviewers noted, large and often raucous crowds were now an inescapable part of the museum-going experience:
[T]he bustling crowds which thrice-a-week are to be seen in the British Museum, swarming with aimless curiosity from room to room, loudly expressing their wonder and disapprobation of the very things most worthy of admiration, or passing with a vacant gaze those precious relics of antiquity, of which it is impossible that they can understand the value as they are, for the most part, insensible to the hallowing associations, which render these objects the links of connexion between distant ages and our own. (“A Visit to the British Museum” 42)
The behavior of these crowds generated considerable anxiety in the press, with one 1839 reviewer even going so far as to publish three “cautions” for visitors to the British Museum and other public exhibitions: “Touch nothing,” “Don’t talk loud,” and “Be not obtrusive” (“Synopsis” 302-3).
The long title of the Museum Britannicum, a guidebook to the British Museum, is as follows:

Museum Britannicum: Or, a Display in Thirty Two Plates, in Antiquities and Natural Curiosities, in that Noble and Magnificent Cabinet, the BRITISH MUSEUM, After the Original Designs from Nature, by John and Andrew Van Rymsdyk, Pictors. The Second Edition, Revised and Corrected by P. Boyle. Dedicated (by Permission) to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. London: Printed for the Editor, by J. Moore, No. 134, Drury-Lane. And Sold by T. Hookham, Bond-Street, M,DCC,XCI.
“Table XXX, Aves, Birds. Figures 1 to 3 are of humming birds from America, with one bird on a nest, and two separate eggs. Figure 4, Paradisca Regia, or the Kings Bird of Paradise” (Thornton 73-4).
Birds. Classification. Museum. Natural history.
As Judith Pascoe argues in her 2006 book The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors, “[t]o be a collector of hummingbirds in the romantic period was to experience the most inspirational collecting conditions: a seemingly endless supply of new types of birds, each potentially lovelier than the last” (27). The Rymsdyks, then, seem appropriately enthusiastic about the hummingbird: “It has the most beautiful, brilliant and radiant lively colours of all others Birds” (Rymsdyk 84). However, the figures in “Table XXX, Aves, Birds” capture none of the beauty, brilliance, or radiance that the Rymsdyks acknowledge. Although the hummingbirds in Figures 1 and 2 and the Bird of Paradise in Figure 4 are angled in a way that seems to suggest flight, they appear to be plunging downward. Of transporting a hummingbird from America, Rymsdyk writes, “[t]here is no such thing as keeping it alive” (84). One cannot help but think that these images represent the unavoidable death of the specimens rather than depicting anything “lively.” The elder Rymsdyk was best known, after all, for his unflinchingly precise illustration of a fetus in utero, drawn from a cadaver. The hummingbird on the nest in Figure 3 is similarly static, its eggs floating in perfect symmetry in the empty space to either side.

Although the watercolor on which this engraving is based was executed in color, the Rymsdyks do not describe the “lively colours” of the birds in the accompanying text. The Rymsdyks’ engravers may have been, as John “desired . . . very exact in imitating the Drawings,” but one cannot help but notice the effect that the loss of color has upon the impression of these images (Rymsdyk vii). As striking examples of “unadorned naturalia,” hummingbirds captured the attention and the fancy of many collectors (Daston and Park 253). In his 1762 guide to the British Museum, R. Dodsley celebrates these wonderfully tiny creatures:
There are several Specimens of Humming Birds, it makes a Noise in flying like the Humming of a Bee, and with its little Beak, which exceeds not the Size of a Needle, sucks, the Juice out of Flowers as it flies; it is the smallest of all Birds, but of the most beautiful and lively Colours; there are several Kinds of them of various Sizes, some so small as to weigh no more than the tenth Part of an Ounce; the Indians make very curious Pictures of its Feathers; the Leg and Foot together measure but half an Inch, its whole Trunk not an Inch. (192)
As Pascoe notes, many collectors were caught up in the spell of hummingbird-catching: “Hummingbirds elicited that trance of longing in which the collector constantly and pleasurably anticipates the latest new specimen to catch his attention” (31). Although they fail, perhaps, to communicate the full colorful and varied splendor of these specimens, the almost morbid attention to detail in the Rymsdyks’ drawings suggests this same “trance of longing.” Pascoe writes, “Even second-rate hummingbird specimens, a little dull or loose in feather, have the power to fascinate, and one takes a guilty pleasure in looking at the gorgeous dead birds” (26). The Rymsdyks’ colorless drawings have a similar, fascinating pull, inspiring the same guilty pleasure in the viewer who knows that the careful study of a creature beautiful in life often depends upon the isolation of that creature in death and stillness.
“An Account of the British Museum” New London Magazine 4.40 (1788): 377-78. Print.

Asma, Stephen T. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. The British Museum. London: Penguin, 1972. Print.

Daston, Lorraine and Katherine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone, 1998. Print.

Dodsley, R. The General Contents of the British Museum: with Remarks. Serving as a Directory in Viewing that Noble Cabinet. London, 1762. Print.

Goldgar, Anne. “The British Museum and the Visual Representation of Culture in the Eighteenth Century.” Albion 32.2 (2000): 195-231. Print.

Pascoe, Judith. The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006. Print.

Rymsdyk, Jan van and Andreas van Rymsdyk. Museum Britannicum, Or, A Display In Thirty Two Plates, In Antiquities and Natural Curiosities, In That Noble and Magnificent Cabinet, the British Museum: After the Original Designs From Nature. 2nd ed. London, 1791. Print.

“Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum” Eclectic Review 6 (1839): 281-306. Print.

Thornton, John L. John Van Rymsdyk: Medical Artist of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Oleander, 1982. Print.

Young, Edward. The Poetical Works of Edward Young. Cambridge, 1859. Print.