William John Swainson was a British naturalist and an artist. He is most known for his beautiful colorful drawings of nature, especially of shells, flowers and birds which he himself collected and observed during his life.
Early Life and Background
William John Swainson was the oldest son of John Timothy Swainson and was born in Newington Butts, London. His father, a customs officer, was a founder member of the Linnean Society and a keen amateur zoologist; this no doubt influenced William’s personal interest in natural history. His mother, Frances Stanway died when he was an infant. His father remarried and there were ten further children from this marriage.
William’s formal education was impeded because of his delicate health and nervous temperament, but he made use of his father’s nature collections and enjoyed exploring the natural world around him.
With his father’s influence he worked as a clerk in the Liverpool customs office when he was 14. Three years later, he worked in the office of the army’s commissary-general and was sent to the Mediterranean where he spent the next seven years.
Research, Works, and Explorations
Swainson found his official duties left him plenty of time to engage in his passion in natural history and collecting specimens. Spending the majority of his time in Sicily, Swainson also travelled to Greece, Malta and Italy.
In 1815, Swainson returned to England in poor health with his specimen collections and now being recognized as a naturalist, was admitted to fellowship of the Linnean Society like his father before him.
He travelled to Brazil in 1817 accompanied by Henry Koster, a British explorer famous for his 1816 book “Travels in Brazil”. Swainson stayed for only a year because of political turmoil; however during that time he amassed an impressive collection of insect samples, plant species and bird skins.
On his return, Swainson was elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society and wrote an account of his Brazil travels for the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal. He also produced a beautiful collection of colored lithograph plates of the birds he observed in Brazil.
Credited with starting the Victorians’ fascination with orchids, his orchid specimens sent back from Brazil sparked much interest.
Swainson married Mary Parkes in 1823 and they lived mainly on his war pension. They travelled to Paris for six months enjoying the sights and sketching at the Jardin des Plantes. They had four sons and a daughter before Mary died in 1835.
He enjoyed moving in good society and collected specimens for Sir Willian Hooker at Kew Gardens and Sir Joseph Bank at the British Museum. He had many academic and renowned friends.
Swainson is best known for his illustrations and beginning in the 1820’s, he produced a series of encyclopedic works using his illustrating skills and natural history knowledge.
“Zoological Illustrations” was published in 1823 and he became the first illustrator and naturalist to use lithography. The illustrations in the book came in monochrome prints, which were then carefully hand-colored.
As beautiful as his illustrations were, he was often let down by his text which contained errors.
He became a strong advocate for the quinarian system of classification of living things, which grouped all plants and animals into fives of multiples of fives. However this system was rejected by most zoologists who preferred the well-established Linnaean system.
Upset at twice missing out on a post at the British Museum and suffering from overwork, Swainson married Anna Grasby in 1840 and the family emigrated to New Zealand the following year. They later added three more daughters to their family.
Swainson and his family spent the first two years in Thorndon where he established the Wellington Horticultural and Botanical Society in 1841.
In 1843 the family settled in Lower Hutt near Wellington, acquiring 150 hectares of land which he called “Hawkshead”, but Swainson struggled to cope with the pioneering life in New Zealand. He made some lovely drawings of New Zealand bush trees and drew many pencil sketches of early Wellington before the earthquakes of 1848 and 1855 had raised the shoreline and changed the costal aspect. In 1848 he became a trustee of the Wellington Mechanics Institute, an adult learning establishments for skilled working men.
Travelling to Sydney, Australia in 1851, he became the Botanical Surveyor of the Victoria Government a year later and made excellent drawings of eucalypts and casuarina species. He identified over 1,500 species and variety of Eucalyptidae and over 200 Casaurinas. He studied the flora of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania before his return to New Zealand in 1854.
He was made an honorary member of the New Zealand Royal Society in 1852.
Works and The End
During his career Swainson published more that forty works between 1808 and 1855 and he is remembered for his for his beautiful colorful drawings of nature, especially of perfect shells and beautiful bird’s feathers.
His works include:
- Exotic Conchology
- The Birds of Brazil
- Birds of Western Africa
- Natural Arrangement and the Relations of the Family of Flycatchers
- Cabinet of Natural History
- Taxidermy with the Biography of Zoologists
- Zoological Illustrations
Devastated by the sudden death from scarlet fever of his and his first wife’s only daughter, and by a second devastating earthquake in January 1855, which transformed “that once beautiful spot into a scene of desolation and ruin” William John Swainson died of bronchitis on December 6, 1855 at the age of 66, in his home. He was buried at St James’s Church, Lower Hutt.