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Sarah Stone’s Unseen Worlds: a rare collection of 18th century ornithological watercolours

By Errol Fuller and Craig Finch

Impress Publishing, 2023

Hbk, 128pp; many colour plates

ISBN  978-1-912-93067-8; £45 

I dare say that you are all familiar with Audubon, but were you aware of Sarah Stone? Born in 1760, the daughter of a fan painter, this British artist drew her first birds as a teenager, before John James Audubon was even born. An avid painter and exceedingly productive illustrator, Stone certainly deserves more recognition and attention. 

There is a 1998 book by Christine E. Jackson, Sarah Stone: natural curiosities from the New Worlds, which provides a rich background and includes many of Stone’s illustrations of objects from the natural world – not least seashells and birds, some of Stone’s common motifs. The 1998 book contains a wealth of information and is a great introduction to the artist. In this new book, by writer and artist Errol Fuller and art dealer Craig Finch, the first quarter introduces Stone and her artistry, while the remainder focuses on 23 recently ‘rediscovered’ watercolours of birds, which have remained out of sight in the Stone family collection until now. The book – a pleasantly designed coffee table book with much focus on the imagery – may well help Stone to gain some well-deserved attention and recognition; though, alas... there is a significant alas, which I shall return to.

The introduction covers how Stone’s upbringing will likely have served her well, learning about painting materials from her father, who was in high demand for decorating fans, a necessity for the modern – and wealthy – women at the time. The first surviving paintings by Stone were made when she was only 17, and she was evidently highly prolific in her artistry. She soon made the acquaintance of Sir Ashton Lever, who was busy amassing a natural history collection from all corners of the world. He realised her talent and commissioned her to paint natural and cultural history artefacts at the newly opened Leverian Museum, in Leicester Square, which was the first museum to display natural history collections to the London public. Stone studiously spent over a decade painting objects in the museum’s collections, which undoubtedly expanded her reputation, and the authors, therefore, cover the Leverian Museum in some detail. 

Despite the great introduction to the life and career of Stone that the authors provide, the text that accompanies the 23 newly rediscovered plates is something of a fiasco. Errol Fuller has previously contributed valuable books on extinct birds but, this time around, it is painfully clear that an ornithologist needed to have been included among the authors or, at the very least, consulted. The errors in the text are plentiful and present at various levels of gravity. Multiple scientific and vernacular names are incorrectly spelt, which reflects poorly on the publisher, and several statements are quite flexible with their facts. The Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo, for example, is described as: ‘… probably a fairly familiar species even in Sarah’s lifetime as it is highly migratory and sometimes occurs in England.’ The species certainly is migratory, but with a distribution far from Britain, and with no modern records considered concerning wild birds it is classified as belonging to category F2b (literature records on occurrence between early Pleistocene and 16,000 years before present). Likewise, in the case of the Eurasian Dotterel Charadrius morinellus, London-living Sarah Stone supposedly ‘would have had opportunities to see individuals in real life’, since it ‘is a common European bird.’ These statements would have been relevant if they were reasonable, as Stone otherwise based her paintings on taxidermy skins.

However, the real sin lies in the sloppy misidentification (or non-identification) of several species, leading to extraordinary but incorrect claims while at the same time missing out on the truly extraordinary. In 1784, Stone painted a watercolour of what is undoubtedly a Magnolia Warbler Setophaga magnolia (albeit somewhat contorted from less-than-perfect taxidermy). The species was not formally described until 26 years later, by Alexander Wilson in 1811, so this is a truly exceptional record of scientific interest, presumably based on a specimen from Captain Cook’s third voyage. Stone had labelled her painting ‘Yellow-throated Warbler’, with a reference to John Latham’s standard work of the time, A General Synopsis of Birds. The authors of Sarah Stone’s Unseen Worlds have followed this label, writing the accompanying text about the Yellow-throated Warbler S. dominica. Importantly, the authors have failed to notice the ever-so-important question mark that Stone wrote after this reference, which makes sense since Latham’s description – just a short text! – does not match the specimen she painted and the Magnolia Warbler was not yet described.

On the other hand, the authors make the corresponding claim for a plate that they label Bornean Peacock-Pheasant Polyplectron schleiermacheri, a species described by Friedrich Brüggemann only in 1877. The only problem is that the painting does not depict a Bornean Peacock-Pheasant, but a Gray Peacock-Pheasant P. bicalcaratum, described by Linnaeus in 1758. In another couple of cases, the fact that the species determined by the authors had not yet been described at the time of painting should have made them think twice: the Slaty Egret Egretta vinaceigula (Sharpe, 1895) from Africa is instead most likely to be a Little Blue Heron E. caerulea (Linnaeus, 1758) from the New World, while the supposed White-browed Robin-chat Cossypha heuglini, described by Hartlaub in 1866, is a beautiful portrait of a Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens(Linnaeus, 1758) from North America. In the latter case, the authors note that Stone had labelled the painting ‘tanager’, which is one of the many affinities that the Yellow-breasted Chat has been ascribed before eventually settling in its monotypic family Icteriidae.

A female Guianan Streaked Antwren Myrmotherula surinamensis has become an unidentified nuthatch (‘it does not quite correlate with any species known today’), despite Stone labelling it with Sitta surinamensis, which is a protonym (i.e. the previously used scientific name) of the species. Despite this, the authors continue: ‘nor does the Latin name scribbled at the top of the image match any names in modern use. So the image remains something of a mystery.’ A Salmon-crested Cockatoo Cacatua moluccensis has become ‘a hybrid between a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (C. galerita) and one of its close relatives’, and a Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis has become a Black-faced Grassquit Melanospiza bicolor

All in all, this is a beautiful coffee table book with remarkable paintings but, frankly, it deserves a substantial revision of the ornithological content before it will be of any meaningful value.

Martin Stervander

Issue 4
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Sarah Stone’s Unseen Worlds

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