by Stephen Van Dyk, Librarian Emeritus, Smithsonian Institution

In commemoration of the 125th anniversary of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, we honor donors such as Robert Winthrop Chanler whose collection greatly enhanced the diversity, depth, and richness of the museum’s rare book library. Chanler, a friend of founders Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt, willed his collection of travel accounts, adventure stories, and decorative and architecture material to Cooper Hewitt in 1930 along with an extensive group of illustrated natural history folios, journals, and books.

Robert Winthrop Chanler (1872–1930) was an American artist known for colorful murals, decorative screens, and interiors depicting fantastic images inspired by nature. No doubt, images found in his extensive natural history library were an abundant source of inspiration as well.

English botanist and zoologist George Shaw’s The Naturalist’s Miscellany, a serial published from 1789 to 1813 containing more than 1000 hand-tinted plates of plants and animals in 24 volumes, is considered one of most comprehensive natural history series of the time. Another visual resource and a major treasure from Chanler’s library is English naturalist Mark Catesby’s 1771 edition:   The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands : containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants : …  This beautifully illustrated folio, with more than 200 hand-colored engravings, is credited as the first published work to provide illustrations and descriptions of North American flora and fauna.

In addition to natural history surveys, Chanler’s collection contains detailed studies of animals, fish,  mollusks, and shells.  Included is an illustrated atlas by naturalist and painter John James Audubon’s 18-year study of mammals entitled The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845–1954).  Equally colorful is Anglo-Irish writer and illustrator Edward Donovan’s The Natural History of British Fishes : (1802–1804)—a multi-volume detailed study of “most interesting” species each accompanied with a vibrant and “accurately” hand colored engraving.   Among the plentiful inventories illustrating the diverse colors and forms of mollusks and shells in the collection is Lovell Reeve’s Conchologia systematica (1841–1842).  More than 300 colored engravings reveal the diverse forms and coloring of shells described and illustrated by Reeves—a major scholar of malacology at the time. Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer in electro-photographic technology, explored the world of nature with photography.  His signed 1902 edition of Animals in Motion examines consecutive phases of progressive movement of animals and humans.

The decorative interiors created for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s studio in Old Westbury, New York, the Colony Club in Manhattan, and Vizcaya—John Deering’s home in Miami, Florida—feature lush, colorful, and fanciful depictions of exotic foliage and birds.   Belgian botanist, explorer, horticulturist, and businessman Jean Jules Linden specialized in the study of orchids. His multi-volume  Lindenia : Iconographie des Orchidées published as a series from 1885 to 1906 includes hundreds of colorful lithographs of diverse orchid species.

The collection includes several monumental illustrated folios on birds. English physician, author, and naturalist John Latham’s A General History of Birds, a ten-volume study published from 1821 to 1828, includes more than 100 hand-colored images of birds.   François Le Vaillant, a French author, explorer, naturalist, zoological collector, and noted ornithologist, studied birds in Africa and South America.  His 1806 Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux de Paradis et des Rolliers, containing 114 hand-colored images of exotic birds, is considered one of most beautiful ornithological works of the time.

Titles from Chanler’s gift to the library can be viewed through Smithsonian Library’s online catalogue. Some have been digitized and can be accessed online.

Further Reading: Rare Books by Stephen Van Dyk at SHOP Cooper Hewitt.

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