Ask A Librarian

William Henry Edwards and the Butterflies of North America

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
November 2nd, 2015

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian.

Colored images of butterflies from Edwards book Butterflies of North America

William Henry Edwards’ (1822 – 1909) business was coal.  Although born in New York, Edwards spent most of his adult life in Coalburg, a small town outside Charleston, West Virginia.  As a co-founder of the Kanawha and Ohio Coal Company, Edwards moved to Coalburg in order to be closer to his mining operations.

William H. Edwards portrait

However, the real love of his life was butterflies. 

Colored image of black and yellow butterfly from Edwards book Butterflies of North America

Edwards was so passionate about butterflies that he determined to publish a book identifying them.  Little did he know that this work would become all consuming.  Edwards dedicated over thirty years of his life to the pursuit of publishing his monumental masterwork, the three volume set known as The Butterflies of North America: With Colored Drawings and Descriptions.  Never equaled, before or since, Edwards’ Butterflies of North America is to insects what John James Audubon’s Birds of America is to birds.

There are several connections between these two great works of natural history.  Much like Audubon, Edwards’ advertised his proposed book in periodicals and was able to draw a number of subscribers to support his publication goals.  Like the Birds of America, the books were to be published in parts, as shown here, or serial publications that, when combined, would provide the full number of pages to create the whole volume.  This approach allowed Edwards to tackle one family of butterflies at a time before moving onto the next.  It took Edwards 42 installments consisting of one hand-colored plate with the accompanying descriptive text to make up the material for all three volumes.

Parts of Edwards books Butterflies of North America

Inspired by the work of naturalists who went before him, Edwards hired illustrators to draw each butterfly, caterpillar, egg and host plant, then he hired colorists to fill in the illustrations with the correct colors and printers to print the text by letterpress.  By the time Edwards began his long project, printing technology, methods and machines had moved rapidly forward, relegating his approach to publication, with each hand-colored insect and text inked, printed and pulled by hand, as an antiquarian or old-fashioned effort.  In the long run, Edwards’ antiquarian effort makes these volumes just as important today as they were upon publication.  Well received, Edwards’ Butterflies were considered to be the finest work of its kind on the subject.

Colored images of butterflies from Edwards book Butterflies of North America

Butterflies surrounding their host plant, an apple tree in blossom.

In its entirety, there were 152 hand-colored lithographic plates drawn by five artists, but the most important of these would be Mary Peart.  Edwards found her work of the highest quality and commissioned her to draw all the forthcoming plates.  In Peart, Edwards found a willing partner.  She was as engaged in the work as he, and he began sending her eggs and larvae to raise to adult butterflies so that she could draw them accurately from life, rather than from dead, dried, mounted specimens.

Although other colorists also worked on the plates, nearly all of the prints were hand-colored by Lavinia Bowen and her sister, Patience D. Leslie.  In yet another connection with Audubon’s great work, it is believed that the sisters also hand-colored plates for two of Audubon’s books, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America and The Birds of America.

Colored images of butterflies from Edwards book Butterflies of North America

The books took a great toll on Edwards.  In order to have the funds to publish them, he was compelled to sell his personal butterfly collection.  This was no ordinary collection, but one that contained butterflies that he had captured, mounted and researched over his lifetime.

All three of the volumes of Edwards’ Butterflies of North America have been digitized in color and are available to download for free from the Internet Archive.  (See links to each volume under Resources).  You may browse these wonderful plates, drawn and colored by hand, by three talented women artists, Mary Peart, Lavinia Bowen and Patience D. Leslie, at home in your favorite easy chair.

But what you don’t get, when you view the images online, is the quality of the hand coloring, the shading of velvety wings from dark to light, the cherry red outlining the gentle curve of each border and the delicate spotting and striping that is apparent when you have the actual book before you.  So come in, make an appointment, and see for yourself this great American masterwork of entomology, the lifelong passion of a West Virginia coal baron.



Comments are closed.