JAMES SOWERBY (1757 - 1822). British Mineralogy: or Coloured Figures intended to elucidate the Mineralogy of Great Britain. London: Printed by R. Taylor (volume 5 by Arding & Merrett) and sold by the Author, J. Sowerby, and by White, (1802-) 1804-1817.

Born the son of a lapidary who worked and lived in Fleet-street, James Sowerby showed an artistic ability in his childhood. He became a student at the Royal Academy were he learned to paint miniatures and portraits. From a desire to make his backgrounds more realistic, Sowerby began a study of botany and soon became an expert illustrator of plants. This talent eventually led Sowerby to publish a 36 volume set called English Botany (London, 1790-1813), which contains 2592 hand-colored plates. The success of this series led him to publish a similar venture on mineralogy, which had become a very popular pastime among the wealthier classes. So in 1802 Sowerby began to publish by subscription an illustrated topographical mineralogy of Great Britain. The product of this venture was British Mineralogy.

During the years when this book was published, the mines of England were producing ores from some of the most richly mineralized deposits yet discovered; subsequently, many notable mineral specimens, including several unsurpassed examples of some species, were discovered and preserved. Sowerby sought out these unusually fine specimens and together with more typical examples, described and illustrated them in British Mineralogy, thereby creating an illustrated collector's compendium of the minerals of Great Britain that has never been superseded.

British Mineralogy was originally issued in 78 parts, called numbers, between 1802 and 1817. Periodically, after a sufficient number of plates had been produced (usually 100), the individual subscribers would have the volumes bound up to suit their tastes. As a result, this work, though most commonly found in five volumes, is also known in four and six volume sets, and in one copy, ten volumes, which split the text and plates into separate books.

(1) Conklin, Lawrence H. "James Sowerby, his Publications and Collections," The Mineralogical Record 1995, 26, 85-105.

(2) Schuh, Curtis P. Mineralogy & Crystallography: An Annotated Bibliography of Books Published 1469 through 1919. Tucson: privately published, 2005, p1366.

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