Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Swainson, William (1789-1855)

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SWAINSON, WILLIAM (1789–1855), naturalist, was born on 8 Oct. 1789 at Liverpool, where his father, who died in 1826, was collector of customs. His family had originally been ‘statesmen’ at Hawkhead in Westmoreland; but his grandfather had also been in the Liverpool custom-house. His mother, whose maiden name was Stanway, died soon after his birth. At fourteen he was appointed junior clerk in the Liverpool customs; but, to gratify his longing for travel, his father obtained him a post in the commissariat, and in the spring of 1807 he was sent to Malta, and shortly afterwards to Sicily, where he was mainly stationed during the eight following years. Before going abroad he drew up, at the request of the authorities of the Liverpool museum, the ‘Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Subjects of Natural History’ (privately printed, Liverpool, 1808), which was afterwards expanded in 1822 into his ‘Naturalist's Guide’ (London, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1824). While in Sicily he made large collections of plants, insects, shells, fish, and drawings of natural history objects, visiting the Morea, Naples, Tuscany, and Genoa. On the conclusion of peace in 1815 he brought his collections to England, and retired on half-pay as assistant commissary-general. In the autumn of 1816 he started for Brazil with Henry Koster. A revolution prevented their penetrating far into the interior, and Swainson devoted himself mainly to collecting birds in the neighbourhood of Olinda, the Rio San Francisco, and Rio de Janeiro. Returning to Liverpool in 1818, he published a sketch of his journey in the ‘Edinburgh Philosophical Journal,’ and devoted himself to working out his zoological materials. At the suggestion of his friend William Elford Leach [q. v.] of the British Museum, he learnt lithography, so as to make drawings of animals suitable for colouring, and in 1820 began the publication of ‘Zoological Illustrations,’ in which the plates are by himself (3 vols. 1820–3, with 182 coloured plates; 2nd ser. 3 vols. 1832–3). After five years' residence in London, Swainson went, on his marriage in 1825, to live with his father-in-law at Warwick, and, not receiving as large an access of fortune as he had expected on the death of his own father in 1826, he adopted authorship as a profession. He partly revised the entomology in Loudon's ‘Encyclopædia of Agriculture and Gardening,’ and arranged a companion encyclopædia of zoology. This plan was, however, merged in Lardner's ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia,’ to which Swainson contributed eleven volumes from his own pen, published between 1834 and 1840, besides one on ‘The History and Natural Arrangement of Insects’ (1840), written in conjunction with William Edward Shuckard [q. v.] In preparation for this series of works he visited the museums of Paris in 1828 under the guidance of Cuvier and St.-Hilaire, and, to be within reach of London, settled at Tittenhanger Green, near St. Albans. From the first he adopted a quinary system based on the circular system of William Sharp Macleay [q. v.], and several volumes in the ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia’ series are devoted to elaborate expositions of these extremely artificial but professedly natural systems of classification in various groups of animals. Besides writing that portion of Sir John Richardson's ‘Fauna Boreali-Americana’ that relates to birds, with introductory ‘Observations on the Natural System’ printed separately, and furnishing the article on the geographical distribution of man and animals in Hugh Murray's ‘Encyclopædia of Geography,’ Swainson contributed three volumes to Sir William Jardine's ‘Naturalist's Library,’ one dealing with the flycatchers (vol. xvii. 1835), and the others with the birds of Western Africa (vols. xxii. xxiii. 1837). In 1837, having suffered pecuniary losses, he emigrated to New Zealand. On the voyage out he lost a large portion of his collections; but he took advantage of touching at Rio to take various plants to his new home to naturalise. In 1853 he was engaged by the governments of Van Diemen's Land and Victoria to report on the timber trees of those colonies. Swainson died at his residence, Fern Grove, Hutt Valley, New Zealand, 7 Dec. 1855.

Swainson was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1816 and of the Royal Society, on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks, in 1820, and he was also a member of many foreign academies. By his first wife, a daughter of John Parkes of Warwick, whom he married in 1825, he had five children, of whom four sons survived him, and by his second wife, who also survived him, he had three daughters. An engraved portrait of him by Edward Francis Finden, from a drawing by Mosses, forms the frontispiece to his volume on ‘Taxidermy’ in the ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia.’ His collection of Greek plants is in the herbarium of the Liverpool botanical garden.

As a zoological draughtsman Swainson combined accuracy with artistic skill, and his papers in the ‘Memoirs of the Wernerian Society,’ Tilloch's ‘Philosophical Magazine,’ the ‘Journal of the Royal Institution,’ Loudon's ‘Magazine of Natural History,’ the ‘Magazine of Zoology and Botany,’ the ‘Entomological Magazine,’ and the ‘Papers of the Royal Society of Van Diemen's Land,’ of which thirty-six, dealing with ornithology, conchology, entomology and trees, are enumerated in the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue’ (viii. 893), contain descriptions of many species new to science.

Besides the works already mentioned, Swainson was the author of:

  1. ‘Ornithological Drawings,’ series 1, ‘Birds of Brazil,’ 5 parts, 1834–5, 8vo.
  2. ‘Exotic Conchology,’ 6 parts, 1834–5, 4to.
  3. ‘Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural History,’ 1834, 8vo.
  4. ‘Elements of Conchology,’ 1835, 12mo.
  5. ‘Treatise on the Geography and Classifications of Animals,’ 1835, 8vo.
  6. ‘Treatise on the Natural History and Classification of Quadrupeds,’ 1835, 8vo.
  7. . … ‘of Birds,’ 2 vols. 1836.
  8. … ‘of Fishes, Amphibians, and Reptiles,’ 2 vols. 1838.
  9. ‘Animals in Menageries,’ 1838, 8vo.
  10. ‘The Habits and Instincts of Animals,’ 1840, 8vo.
  11. ‘Taxidermy, with the Biography of Zoologists and notices of their works,’ 1840, 8vo.
  12. ‘A Treatise on Malacology,’ 1840, 8vo.

A work on New Zealand is sometimes assigned to the naturalist in error. It is by his namesake, who is noticed below.

[Autobiography in Taxidermy, 1840; Gent. Mag. 1856, i. 532–3; Proceedings of the Linnean Society, 1855–6, p. xlix.]

G. S. B.