Artefact of the month - April 2009
Watercolours of British birds' eggs from a collection formed by Major Henry Jones circa 1900
These delightful paintings of bird eggs were made by Henry Jones, a little know but very skilled bird artist.
The 180 pages depicting British birds’ eggs actually include eggs from birds living as far away as India and North America. Many are recorded as being from European localities outside Britain.
Henry Jones was a professional soldier who spent much of his career in India. Upon retirement, aged 43, he returned to England, where he devoted his time to painting the Indian birds in the collections of the British Museum (Natural History). He bequeathed over one thousand of these beautiful paintings to ZSL in 1921.
Henry Jones was born in 1838. He lived at the family home East Wickham House at Welling in Kent with his five siblings. He was educated at Shrewsbury House School, Shooter's Hill. In 1860 he joined the army as an ensign, and was promoted to lieutenant in 1863 and captain in 1876. He retired with the rank of honorary major in 1880. On return to England, he went back to live in the same family home in Kent where he had been brought up. Thereafter, his passion was painting Indian birds and for the next 40 years he was a regular visitor to the bird department of the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington.
Very little is known about Jones's life. It is thought that he saw little active service in India and his duties were mainly administrative. He was probably taught painting at school, for which he had a natural talent. Any draughtsmanship learnt in the army may account for the precision that can be seen in the collection of bird paintings in ZSL Library, which is meticulous in its attention to detail, for accuracy, and sensitive replication of patterns and of colours even though his work was mainly done from dried museum bird study skins. All the paintings in ZSL Library were completed after Jones returned to England. It is not known if he started painting birds while he was in India which, with its abundant and colourful birdlife, inspired many Europeans to spend their lives describing the continent's avifauna. However, before reaching the high standard to be found in the ZSL paintings, Jones is likely to have filled sketchbooks with studies of living birds. The meticulous detail as exemplified in his paintings was only possible by intimate examination of bird study collections and for that Jones became a regular visitor to the BMNH (now the Natural History Museum) in South Kensington. We do not know when Jones began to paint seriously.
One contemporary observation by the noted ornithologist David Bannerman describes Jones as being rather small in stature who spent 'day after day [at the NHM] working away at those pictures now so beautifully bound in the Zoo Library' (Olney, ).
Jones was an extremely accomplished amateur bird painter who painted solely for pleasure. Yet the standard of his paintings is on a par with the professionals of the period.
The Michael Marks Trust has provided funding for the cataloguing of the artworks in ZSL's collections. To search the catalogue use this link ZSL Library Catalogue , use the `Search artworks’ button on the sidebar. Please note that some artworks are catalogued as collections, not individually.