Exceptional Book by Controversial Father of Wildlife Safari for Sale at Bonhams

A unique edition of François Levaillant’s Histoire Naturelle des oiseaux d’Afrique, with eighteen original watercolour illustrations for the dedicatee, Jacob Temminck, is to be auctioned at Bonhams Travel & Exploration sale in Knightsbridge, London, on 3 December, 2014. The work, in six volumes, is estimated at £80,000 - 100,000.

Levaillant’s obsession with the wildlife of the world began amid the forests of his birthplace, Paramaribo, the capital of modern-day Suriname. When his family returned to Europe in 1763, Levaillant spent two years in Metz studying natural history, nursing the passion which came into full bloom after he examined marvellous cabinets devoted to ornithology during a visit to Paris in 1777.

Levaillant first met the Dutch aristocrat and zoologist, Jacob Temminck, in 1780, shortly before embarking on his first voyage to South Africa. Temminck was treasurer of the Dutch East India Trading Company, and he sent Levaillant to Africa to collect specimens of the birds he found there. Levaillant stayed for three years, making three separate expeditions—the first of which ended in disaster when his ship was attacked and sunk by the English—before making his way home to Holland.

During his three years in Africa, Levaillant gathered examples of more than two thousand birds. These were meant to go to the French government, but it is well known that many found their way to the wealthy and powerful Temminck, and to the Natural History Museum at Leiden, of which Temminck was the director. Levaillant’s debt to Temminck is indicated on one leaf of the present manuscript, which dedicates the work to Temminck.

This redirection of artefacts was not the only controversy associated with Levaillant. It has been suggested that, perhaps owing to his fervour for discovering and recording new species, he was inclined to take a degree of poetic licence in documenting his findings. Carl Sundevall’s 1857 study of Levaillant’s collections identified fifty species which could not have come from the Cape region as Levaillant had claimed, and a further ten species which seemed to have been made up altogether.

These fabrications, however, are testament to Levaillant’s determination to be a pioneer, an objective in which he was undoubtedly successful. His travels through Africa, observing the wildlife and contemplating humankind, have often been cited as the origin of the Safari, while his comprehensive records of the landscapes, animals and people he encountered inspired the genre of travel writing. Indeed, his descriptions of the people of Africa demonstrate a lack of prejudice which generally would not be found again until centuries later.

The present volumes are of exceptional quality, extra-illustrated with a fine watercolour frontispiece, and seventeen original watercolours of the heads and claws of birds of prey. They include three hundred engraved plates by Fessard, Perée and Bouquet, each in both black and white and printed colours with some additional hand-colouring. This important book is one of a number in the sale on South Africa from a private collection.

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