Edwards, George

, an eminent English naturalist, was born April 3, 1693, at Stratford, a hamlet. belonging to West- Ham, in Essex. Some of his early years were passed under the tuition of two clergymen, one of whom kept a school at Laytonstone, and the other at Brentwood, after which, being designed by his parents for business, he was put apprentice to a tradesman in Fenchurch-street. He was particularly happy in his master, who treated him with great kindness and civility; and who, besides his being a man of a strict regard to religion, had the uncommon qualification of being well skilled in the learned languages. About the middle of the term of Mr. Edwards’s apprenticeship, an event happened, which gave a direction to his future studies. Upon the death of Dr. Nicholas, a person of eminence in the physical world, and a relation of Edwards’s master, the doctor’s books, which were very numerous, were removed to our apprentice’s apartment. So unexpected an opportunity of acquiring knowledge he embraced with eagerness, and passed all the leisure of the day, and not onfrequently a considerable part of the night, in turning over Dr. Nicholas’ collections of natural history, sculpture, painting, astronomy, and antiquities. From this | time, he lost what little relish he had for trade, and on the expiration of his servitude, formed the design of travelling into foreign countries for the purpose of improving his taste, and enlarging his mind. His first voyage was to Holland in 1716, when he visited most of the principal towns of the United Provinces. He then returned to England, and continued two years unemployed in London and its neighbourhood, though not without increasing his acquaintance with natural history. His next voyage was to Norway, where an active and philosophic mind, like his, could not fail to be highly gratified both with the stupendous scenery of nature, and with the manners of the inhabitants. In an excursion to Frederickstadt, he was not far distant from the cannon of Charles XII. of Sweden, who was then engaged in the siege of that place, before which he lost his life. By this circumstance Mr. Edwards was prevented from visiting Sweden, the Swedish army being particularly watchful against strangers. Notwithstanding all his precaution, and his solicitude to give no offence on either side, he was onqe confined by the Danish guard, who supposed him to be a spy employed by the enemy to procure intelligence of their designs. Upon obtaining testimonials, however, of his innocence, a release was granted.

In July 1718, he embarked for England, and soon after his arrival, retired to his native place, where he spent the winter. But being desirous of visiting France, he went thither in 1719, and after viewing the curiosities of Paris, took a lodging in a village situated in the great park of Versailles. His view was to enlarge his knowledge of natural history, but, to his great mortification, there was not at that time a living creature in the menagerie. As the court, during the king’s minority, did not reside at Versailles, the famous collection of animals had been so totally neglected, that they were all either dead or dispersed. To relieve his disappointment, Mr. Edwards amused himself in surveying the several churches and religious houses, and especially the statues and pictures in the public buildings. While he resided in France, he made two journeys of a hundred miles each. The first was to Chalons in Champagne, in May 1720; the second was on foot, to Orleans and Blois. This was performed in a disguised habit that he might avoid being robbed, but the scheme happened to be peculiarly hazardous; for an edict had recently been | issued to secure vagrants, in order to transport them to America, the banks of the Missisippi standing in need of population; and our philosopher narrowly escaped a western voyage.

On his return to England, he closely pursued his favourite study of natural history; applying himself to the drawing and colouring of such animals as fell under his notice. His earliest rare was rather to preserve natural than picturesque beauty. Birds first engaged his particular attention; and some of the best pictures of these subjects being purchased by him, he was induced to make a few drawings of his own. These were admired by the curious, who, by paying a good price for them, encouraged him in labours- which now procured him a decent subsistence and a large acquaintance. In 1731 he was enabled to remit his industry, and, in company with two of his relations, made an excursion to Holland and Brabant, where he collected several scarce books and prints, and had an opportunity of examining the original pictures of various great masters, at Antwerp, Brussels, Utrecht, and other large cities. In December 1733, by the recommendation of sir Hans Sloane, president of the college of physicians, he was chosen their librarian, and had apartments assigned him in the college. This, which was the principal epocha of his private life, fixed him in an office that was particularly agreeable to his taste and inclination. He had now an opportunity of a constant recourse to a valuable library, filled with scarce and curious books on those subjects of natural history which he most assiduously studied. By degrees he became one of the most eminent ornithologists in our own or any other country, and in acquiring this character, such was his scrupulous industry, that he never trusted to others what he could perform himself; and when he found it difficult to give satisfaction to his own mind, frequently made three or four drawings to delineate the object in its most lively character, attitude, and representation.

In 1743, he exhibited to the world an admirable specimen of his labours, in the first volume of his “History of Birds.” It was published in 4to, on royal paper, and contains sixty-one birds, and two quadrupeds, most of which had been neither delineated nor described before. They are engraved on fifty-two plates, from original drawings, exactly coloured, with full and accurate descriptions | in French -and English. This volume is dedicated to the president and fellows of the royal college of physicians. His subscribers having exceeded his most sanguine expectations, a second volume appeared in 1747, dedicated to sir Hans Sloane, and a third in 1750, dedicated to the royal society. His fourth volume came from the press in 1751, and was the last which at that time he intended to publish. It was accompanied by the extraordinary circumstance of being dedicated to the Supreme Being, in the following words;

"To God,

"The One Eternal the Incomprehensible the Omnipresent, the Omniscient, and Almighty Creator of all Things that exist from Orbs immensurably great, to the minutest points of matter, this Atom is dedicated and devoted, with all possible Gratitude, Humiliation, Worship, and the highest Adoration both of Body and Mind, By his most resigned,

low, and humble, Creature,

George Edwards."

This dedication, we doubt not, was piously designed, but it cannot be commended. Such an assumption, it has been observed, is too great for any human creature, and the few instances of the kind that have occurred in the history of literature have always been justly disapproved. It is not, however, the only instance we have to record of the peculiar turn of his religious affections.

But with this work it soon appeared that he did not mean to discontinue his labours; his mind was too active, and his love of knowledge too ardent, for him to rest satisfied with what he had already done. Accordingly, in 1758, he published his first volume of “Gleanings of Natural History,” exhibiting seventy different birds, fishes, insects, and plants, most of which were before non-descripts, coloured from nature, on fifty copper-plates. This work much increased his fame as a natural historian, and as an artist. In 1760, a second volume appeared, dedicated to the late earl of Bute, whose studious attachment to natural history, particularly to botany, was then well known. The third part of the “Gleanings,” which constituted the 7th and last volume of Mr. Edwards’s works, was published in 1763, and was dedicated to earl Ferrers, who, when captain Shirley, had taken in a French prize, a great number of birds, intended for madame Pompadour, mistress | of Louis XV. These he communicated to our naturalist, who was hence enabled more completely to add to the value of his labours. Thus, after a long series of years, the most studious application, and a very extensive correspondence with every quarter of the world, Mr. Edwards concluded a work, which in 7 vo!s. 4to, contains engravings and descriptions of more than an hundred subjects in natural history, not before described or delineated, and all the productions of his own hand. We have already mentioned his scrupulous exactness, and may now confirm it in his own words. In the third volume of his “Gleanings” he says, “It often happens that my figures on the copper-plates differ from my original drawings for sometimes the originals have not altogetherpleased me as to their attitudes or actions. In such cases I have made three or four, sometimes six sketches, or outlines, and have deliberately considered them all, and then fixed upon that which I judged most free and natural, to be engraven on my plate.” He added to the whole a general index in English and French, which is now perfectly completed, with the Linna-an names, by Li mums himself, who frequently honoured him with his friendship and correspondence. Upon Mr. Edwards’ completing his great work, we find him making the following singular declaration, or rather petition, in which he seems afraid that his passion for his favourite subject of natural history, should get the better of a nobler pursuit, viz. the contemplation of his Maker.

My petition to God (if petitions to God are not presumptuous) is, that he would remove from me all desire of pursuing natural history or any other study, and inspire me with as much knowledge of his divine nature as my imperfect state is capable of; that I may conduct myself, for the remainder of my days, in a manner most agreeable to his will, which must consequently be most happy to myself. What my condition may be in futurity, is known only to the wise disposer of all things; yet my present desires are (perhaps vain, and inconsistent with the nature of 'things!) that 1 may become an intelligent spirit, void of gross matter, gravity, and levity; endowed with a voluntary motive-power, either to pierce infinitely into boundless ethereal space, or into solid bodies; to see and know how the parts of the great universe are connected with each other, and by what amazing mechanism they are put | and kept in regular and perpetual motion. But, O vain and daring presumption of thought; I most humbly submit my future existence to the supreme will of the One Omnipotent.

Several occasional papers upon natural history were communicated by Mr. Edwards to the royal society, and inserted in the Philosophical Transactions .*


These were reprinted and added to the Memoirs of his Life and Writings, 1770, 4to.

In a few instances, he corresponded with other periodical publications. The prefaces and introductions to many of his volumes contain some curious and ingenious essays relative to the object of his principal pursuit;, and he has given, likewise, a brief and general idea of drawing and painting in water-colours, with instructions for etching on copperplates; and reflections on the passages of birds. In 1770 these essays were selected and published by our author, in one vol. 8vo, his design in doing which was to accommodate those persons who could not afford the expence of his great work.

Seventeen years after Mr. Edwards had been appointed librarian to the college of physicians, he was honoured by the president and council of the royal society with the donation of sir Godfrey Copley’s medal. This was on St. Andrew’s day, 1750, and the honour was conferred upon him in consideration of his having just then completed his “History of Birds,” though the last volume had not yet been published. His sensibility of this distinction was shown by him in causing a copy of the medal to be engraved, and placed under the general title in the first volume of his history. On the 10th of November, 1757, he was chosen a fellow of the royal society; and he was afterward elected into the society of antiquaries. He had likewise the honour of being made a member of many of the academies of science and learning in different parts of Europe. In return for such marks of estimation, he presented elegant coloured copies of his works to the royal college of physicians, to the royal and antiquarian societies, and the British museum. Having made the same present to the royal academy of sciences at Paris, he received a most polite letter of thanks written by their then, secretary, Defouchy.

After the last publication of his “Gleanings,” being arrived at his seventieth year, he found that his sight | began to fail him, and that his hand lost its steadiness. He continued, however, some years afterward in his office of librarian; but finding his infirmities to increase, he retired in 1769 from public employment, to a small house which be had purchased at Plaistow: previously to which he disposed of all the copies, as well as plates, of his works to the late Mr. Robson, bookseller in New Bond-street, who published the Linnaean Index, his papers from the Philosophical Transactions, with the plates relative to these subjects all new engraved, in 1776, in a proper size to bind with his other vorks, the whole of which he assigned to Mr. Robson solely, and addressed a letter to the public upon the occasion, dated May 1, 1709. His collection of drawings, amounting to upwards of nine hundred, had before been purchased by the earl of Bute. The conversation of a few select friends, and the perusal of a few choice books, w,ere his amusement in the evening of his life, and he occasionally made excursions to some of the principal cities in England. During his residence at Plaistow, however, he delineated some scarce animals, which were afterwards engraved. His latter years were much embittered by a cancerous complaint which deprived him of the sight of one of his eyes, and by the stone, to which he had been subject at different periods of his life. It was nevertheless remarked, that in the severest paroxysms of misery, he was scarcely known to utter a single complaint. Having completed his eightieth ye?.r, and become emaciated with age and sickness, he died on the 23d of July, 1773, and was Interred in the church-yard of WestHam, his native parish, where his executors erected a stone with a plain inscription, to perpetuate his talents as an artist and zoologist. Dying a bachelor, he left his fortune to two sisters, who did not long survive him.

With regard to his person, he was of a middle stature, rather inclining to corpulence. The turn of his mind was liberal and cheerful. The benevolence of his temper was experienced by all his acquaintance, and his poor neighbours frequently partook of his bounty. From the diffidence and humility which were always apparent in his behaviour, he was not calculated for shining in general conversation; but to persons who had a taste for studies congenial to his own, he was a most entertaining as well as communicative companion. How much his works continue to be held in estimation, is apparent from the high price at which | they are commonly sold. His proper and distinct character is, that he far excelled all the English ornithologists who had gone before him. The immense accessions which, since 1763, have been made to natural knowledge, and the higher degree of taste and elegance to which the art of engraving has been carried, may give to future productions an eminence and reputation superior to what our author has attained. But that he should be exceeded by those who come after him, will be no diminution to his just fame, or prevent his memory from being handed down to posterity with honour and applause. 1


Biog. Brit. Ann. Register for 1776. Nichols’s Bowyer.