He became a student at the Royal Academy, and was an articled pupil of Richard Wright [q. v.], the marine painter. In his early years he was a teacher of drawing and a portrait-painter. The practice of flower-painting led him to the study of botany, and his skill soon attracted the attention of botanists. In 1786–7 he drew plates for L'Hérilier, the French botanist, then in England. In 1787 he was employed by W. Curtis on plates for the ‘Botanical Magazine,’ and in 1788 he published his first work, ‘An easy Introduction to drawing Flowers according to Nature’ (obl. fol. London, 1788), of which a second edition, under the title ‘A Botanical Drawing-Book,’ appeared in 1791.
In 1790 the first volume of his great work, ‘English Botany,’ was issued. The work was finished in 1814 in thirty-six volumes, and comprised 2592 coloured plates. For these Sir James Edward Smith wrote the descriptive text (except that for plates 16, 17, 18, which was by Dr. G. Shaw), but Smith did not allow his name to appear till vol. iv. was printed. A supplement in four volumes by Sir W. J. Hooker, with illustrations by James's son, James De Carle Sowerby [q. v.], and others, was issued between 1831 and 1849. A smaller edition in twelve volumes, in which the descriptions are abridged, was brought out between 1831 and 1846 by Charles Edward Sowerby [see under Sowerby, John Edward], vols. iii. to xii. being edited by Charles Johnson (1791–1880) [q. v.], while a so-called third edition, under the editorship of J. T. Boswell Syme, appeared between 1863 and 1886; but, the whole of the text being rewritten and many of the plates redrawn, it is usually reckoned a distinct work.
The companion work, ‘Coloured Figures of English Fungi’ (4to, London), was begun in 1797, and the last of the 440 plates finished in 1815. The text of this work was by Sowerby himself, and in connection with its production he made the series of more than two hundred models of British fungi, now exhibited in the British Museum (Natural History).
Sowerby's attention was next given to zoological subjects, to mineralogy, and to fossil shells, and in all these branches of science he produced works renowned for the care and fidelity of their illustrations. The record of his busy life is best gathered from the list of his works. He was elected an associate of the Linnean Society in 1788, and a fellow on 16 April 1793. He was also a member of the Geological Society from 1807. He died at his residence in Lambeth on 25 Oct. 1822. By his wife, Anne, daughter of Robert Brettingham De Carle, the descendant of a Huguenot family settled in Norwich, Sowerby left issue; his sons, James De Carle [q. v.] and George Brettingham [q. v.], are separately noticed. A third son, Charles Edward, was father of John Edward Sowerby [q. v.]
In addition to the works already named Sowerby was author of:
- ‘Flora luxurians; or the Florists' Delight,’ 3 Nos. fol. London [1789–] 1791.
- ‘British Mineralogy; or coloured figures … to elucidate the Mineralogy of Great Britain,’ 5 vols. (550 plates coloured, with descriptive letterpress), 8vo, London [1803?–], 1804–17.
- ‘The British Miscellany; or coloured figures of … animal subjects,’ &c. (twelve pts., seventy-six plates, coloured, with descriptive letterpress), 2 vols. 4to, London, 1804–6.
- ‘Part I (–III) … of a Description of Models to explain Crystallography,’ &c., 12mo, London, 1805.
- ‘A New Elucidation of Colours,’ &c., 4to, London, 1809.
- ‘Exotic Mineralogy; or Coloured Figures of Foreign Minerals,’ &c. 2 vols. (169 plates, coloured, with descriptive letterpress), 8vo, London, 1811–1817.
- ‘The Mineral Conchology of Great Britain; or coloured Figures .. of … Shells which have been preserved … in the Earth’ (continued by J. De C. Sowerby 7 vols. (648 plates, coloured, with descriptive text), 8vo, London, 1812–46. The principal part of the text was written by his two sons, James De Carle and George Brettingham (primus) (Mag. Nat. Hist. new. ser. (1839), iii. 418). A pirated French edition was begun by Professor Louis Agassiz in 1839, and finished by Desor in 1845, 609 plates of the original being compressed into 395 of the translation. Desor also published a German translation (based on the French one) between 1842 and 1844.
- ‘A List of Minerals, with Latin and English Names,’ &c., 8vo, London, 1819.
- ‘A List of Rocks and Strata,’ &c., 8vo, London, 1819.
- ‘The Genera of Recent and Fossil Shells … continued by G. B. Sowerby,’ 2 vols. (42 numbers, 264 plates, coloured, with descriptive letterpress) 8vo, London, 1820–34? The text to this was probably also entirely the work of the two sons.
The following are of uncertain date:
- ‘A Short Catalogue of British Minerals’ … pt. i. combustibles and earths.
- ‘Passiflora quadrangularis,’ coloured plate.
- ‘The three British Meteorolites,’ coloured plate.
- ‘The Highgate Fossil, Nautilus imperialis,’ coloured plate.
- ‘Blue Topaz,’ two coloured plates, with description.
He also executed plates for the following, among other works:
- Aiton's ‘Hortus Kewensis,’ 1789, of which the original draw-