Artefact August 2010

Brian Houghton Hodgson manuscripts at ZSL

Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800-1894) is widely recognised for the great progress he made in describing the birds and mammals of Nepal, and in recognition of this his name is linked to the names of several mammals and birds. Realising that Nepal was virtually unknown to Europeans, Hodgson devoted the 23 years (1820-1843) he was posted there to study its peoples, customs, architecture, languages, religion and natural history. In natural history, Hodgson concentrated on the birds and mammals of Nepal, the Himalayas in general and Northern India. He wrote more than 140 zoological papers, ranging from descriptions of single species to checklists of the fauna, and presented ZSL with his manuscript notes and drawings.

A red panda drawing from Brian Haughton Hodgson manuscripts 'Mammals of India' Vol.1, 1852, probably by Ragman Sing(h).

Hodgson was successively between 1820 and 1843 Assistant British Resident, then Acting Resident and then from 1833 he was Resident.

ZSL is fortunate in having six manuscript volumes of his bird drawings and notes and two further volumes concerning mammals: circa 1078 pages on birds and 456 on mammals.

Hodgson trained Nepalese artists to paint watercolours of the animals in the style of zoological illustrations and built up an enormous visual reference of pictures.Rajman Singh illustrated many of the drawings in the mammal volumes.

While some paintings are finished, the manuscripts also contain sketches, notes and measurements like a field sketch book; yet almost always these talented artists have succeeded in producing superb images, which were then annotated by Hodgson with scientific and common names, an indication of the locality and reference number.

Typically each drawing has a caption giving Hodgson's unique species number, a scientific name, common local names, and locality. Additionally, there may be many separate figures on anatomy, and copious notes on both sides of the sheet, including tables showing the animal’s measurements and weight. Hodgson recorded the day and month but seldom the year, so that accurate dating of the drawings is often difficult.

Hodgson described many animals for the first time; he discovered many others but their valid scientific names and descriptions are attributed to other zoologists owing to the difficulty in communications 170 years ago.

The Brian Houghton Hodgson manuscripts contain unique,useful, first-hand and important information for bird and mammal biology and conservation. ZSL has taken a number of steps to increase awareness of the manuscripts and their use:

  • Carol Inskipp (author of A Himalayan ornithologist: the life and works of Brian Houghton Hodgson) copied all the Hodgson notes in English on the drawings of birds and mammals in the 1980s. With the help of Carol Inskipp, ZSL has transcribed these into electronic format: List of mammals (207.75 KB) Birds vol. 1 (522.54 KB)Birds vol. 2 (330.94 KB)Birds vol. 3 (591.74 KB) Birds vol. 4 (625.81 KB)Birds vol. 5 (391.69 KB) Birds vol. 6 (411.57 KB)
  • Edward Dickinson was appointed as Honorary Visiting Scholar in 2006-2008 to study the manuscripts in relation to bird identification and taxonomy. He was hoping to identify the ‘type specimens’, (i.e. the first specimens on which the species description is based) and to compile a list of species. Although he did not manage to complete this project he has published several papers about the works in Zoologische Mededelingen as part of a series on Asian birds. His paper specifically about Hodgson is : Systematic notes on Asian birds. 52. An introduction to the bird collections of Brian Houghton Hodgson (1801-1894) Zoologischen Mededlingen, 2006, 80-5, pp. 126-136. Click here to view a PDF of this article.
  • ZSL has been trying to identify the non-English script in the manuscripts and to see if this text is of interest. Professor Michael Hutt of SOAS has identified the script as Devangari and the language as a form of Hindi. ZSL is now trying to establish whether the information in this script is repeated in the English text. If it is not and the text is found to be of use, we will then try to find a translator.
  • Roberta Davis, a ZSL Fellow has been volunteering in the Library and has transcribed the first 10 pages of Volume 2 of birds and is now working on the first mammal volume. This is to identify whether it is useful and feasible to carry out this project for all of the pages. Please view the draft of Roberta's draft transcriptions of Volume 1 of Mammals Mammal transcriptions (894.11 KB)   and transcriptions of bird text  Bird transcriptions (221.73 KB)  She has transcribed several pages as a `taster' to give an indication of the contents. Please note that there is no punctuation in the manuscript, she has tried to make sense of the text but the writing is sometime difficult to decipher.
  • Another Fellow of ZSL has been through all the manuscript letters of Hodgson and listed them; he also moved them into archival quality envelopes and boxes. These can be found by searching for Hodgson in our Library catalogue.
  • Some of the mammal drawings have been used to illustrated Status of Nepal's mammals : the national red list 2012.
  • The volumes have been used for the chapter entitled `Zoology … amuses me much’ by Ann Datta and Carol Inskipp inThe origins of Himalayan studies : Brian Houghton Hodgson in Nepal and Darjeeling 1820-1858, edited by David M. Waterhouse.
  • The birds drawings were listed in 1930 by G. Carmichael Low in A classification of the original watercolour paintings of birds of India by B.H. Hodgson, S.R. Tickell, and C.F. Sharpe in the Library of the Zoological Society of London and published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.
  • Hodgson's works have been featured on the ZSL website as ‘Artefact of the month’ on several occasions, including the red panda drawings (as red pandas have recently returned to ZSL London Zoo). We do try to emphasise links between the ‘living collections' and the ‘historic collections' in ZSL Library.
  • We hold several ‘close-up’ tours each year for members and interested groups and always try to encourage an interest in our historical material.
  • Puneeta Sharma, an MA paper conservation student at University of the Arts London, is conserving a painting of a Chiru or Tibetan antelope as part of her 2014 MA project. This painting is separate from the manuscripts but forms part of our Hodgson collections. The species is named after Hodgson Pantholops hodgsoni. 
  • David Lowther, PhD student at the University of Newcastle has been appointed as ZSL Library's Visiting Scholar during 2014. He is analysing Hodgson's collection of ornithology paintings, and his work in the identification and classification of Nepalese birds, as part of (his) research into the development of zoology in Britain c.1820-1850. He is also working on an article about some Himalayan Mastiff's.
  • If we can digitise the Hodgson volumes we would investigate the possibility of making the manuscripts available online and in our ‘Turning the Pages’ kiosk in the newly refurbished Victorian Bird House exhibit (the Blackburn Pavilion) at ZSL London Zoo. This software enables visitors to explore ZSL’s diverse zoological art collection virtually, viewing illustrations of birds from books too delicate to be handled, many by some of the best 19th century professional zoological artists. The Zoo receives over 1 million visitors annually.
  • In summary we are taking steps to increase access, use and interest in the Hodgson manuscripts.


Can you help?


Transcribing the manuscripts?

Checking transciptions?
Translating the Devengari text?
Contributing to conservation and digitisation costs?
Using the manuscripts in your studies of Nepal’s fauna?
Sharing any other ideas to raise awareness and use for these manuscripts?
Please email Ann Sylph at or telephone 020 7449 6293.
Please also use these contact details if you would like to examine these manuscripts in more detail.

Do check this page again for further updates.
A classification of the original watercolour paintings of birds of India by B.H. Hodgson, S.R. Tickell, and C.F. Sharpe in the Library of the Zoological Society of London by G. Carmichael Low et al, Proceedings of the Zoological Society, 1930,100: 549–626. doi: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.1930.tb00991.x Publication History Article first published online: 21 AUG 2009 Received April 16; 1930: Read June 3, 1930. Link to PDF of this document for Journal of Zoology subscribers

Catalogue of the Specimens and Drawings of Mammals, Birds, Reptiles and Fishes of Nepal and Tibet, presented by B.H. Hodgson, Esq. to the British Museum. Second Edition 1863. (ZSL Library has a copy annotated by Hodgson).

A Himalayan ornithologist: the life and works of Brian Houghton Hodgson by Mark Cocker and Carol Inskipp, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1988

Hodgson : a pioneer of Himalayan natural history by Carol Inskipp. Journal. British-Nepal Society, 2010, No. 24, pp. 29-33

Life of Brian Houghton Hodgson : British Resident at the court of Nepal by Sir William Wilson Hunter, London J. Murray, 1896

The origins of Himalayan studies : Brian Houghton Hodgson in Nepal and Darjeeling 1820-1858, edited by David M. Waterhouse, London : Routledge Curzon, 2004.

In 2011 the British Library have produced A Descriptive catalogue of the Hodgson collection in the British Library, London.


Page updated May 2014