William MacGillivray and John James Audubon were contemporaries, friends and working colleagues. But despite their shared passions and talents, one became world renowned while the other remained hardly known. William MacGillivray made an enormous contribution to natural science and art, but a number of circumstances conspired to leave his genius largely unrecognised.
MacGillivray, William (1796-1852)
William MacGillivray was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on 25 January 1796, and died in his native town at the age of 56 years. During his lifetime he moved to Edinburgh, wrote many scientific papers and books, revolutionised the teaching of natural history and left a small but wonderful body of work comprising 214 watercolours of birds, fish and mammals. His son, Paul Howard MacGillivray, presented these paintings to The Natural History Museum in 1892.
Born into an age of enlightened thinking and scientific expansion and discovery, MacGillivray was the illegitimate son of William MacGillivray and Ann Wishart. Unusually, for an illegitimate child, he was brought up by his father's family. His birth status did not seem to affect his childhood or prevent him from achieving great things, but this, combined with his class, may account for some of the difficulties he encountered with scientific colleagues later in life. Darwin, in his private notes, called him 'the accurate MacGillivray' but said that 'he had not the manners or appearance of a gentleman'.
Aged three, MacGillivray moved, with his family, to Harris, part of the Outer Hebridean group of islands off the north coast of Scotland. There is some uncertainty as to the fate of his father but it is thought that he died serving with the Cameron Highlanders in the Peninsular wars. On Harris, MacGillivray attended the local school and received a good education, including a grounding in Latin and Greek. As a child, and indeed as a man, he preferred exploring the outdoors to studying inside.
Like most children on Harris he learned to use a gun at an early age, and in his book of 1836, Descriptions of Rapacious Birds, describes how he killed an eagle that had been worrying his uncle's sheep by luring it with a white hen. After the kill he thought, 'so this is it, an eagle is not such a great thing after all', and as he was not yet a scientist it was left 'to rot on a dung heap'. This lack of sentimentality about killing animals might be difficult to understand today, but it was important to the advancements made in the understanding of anatomy and science at this time. MacGillivray killed hundreds of birds during his lifetime, as did Audubon. This is not to suggest that MacGillivray was without sentiment--he also trained a rock dove to fly to and from school with him each day.
At age 11 MacGillivray returned to Aberdeen for a year of schooling before entering King's College to study for a General M.A. (this was not an unusual age at the time). By 1814 he was studying medicine, but three years later decided that medicine was not for him and that he would, 'devote his attention exclusively to natural history'.
He returned to Harris, taught at his old school and practised medicine when called upon. The local people knew of MacGillivray's interests and brought or reported any unusual specimens to him. These included a dead walrus (the subject of MacGillivray's first scientific paper) and a bear which he was asked to kill and stuff.
He also spent considerable time making study tours around the Outer Hebrides,and his detailed journals record the plants and animals he found and also reveal something of his character. He was convinced from an early age that he had 'the ability to be eminent'. This conviction gave him strength later in life when his work was criticised by contemporaries, but may also have led to the bad feeling against him.
In 1819 MacGillivray decided to walk to London to look at the bird collections at the British Museum. On the journey he took the opportunity to visit areas of Britain he had not seen before and to record the plants and animals he saw. He was unable to afford hotels and sometimes had to sleep under hedges, but his ultimate aim, to visit the collections at the British Museums (specimens that form part of The Natural History Museum today), made this hardship seem more than worthwhile. He enthused in his diary that his 'love of natural history very much increased by the inspection of the Museum' and became convinced that 'to study nature I must have recourse to nature alone, pure and free from human interference'. This was another belief, which was to ensure his accuracy later but also caused problems with his scientific contemporaries.
Over the next ten years MacGillivray worked as curator at the Jameson Museum on Harris, published a few scientific papers and married Marion Macaskill. In 1826 he recorded in his diary that he felt it 'expedient to retire' for reasons unknown, but it is thought that he undertook some form of mineralogical speculation. In 1830 he published his first book, a revised edition of W.H. Withering's A Systematic Arrangement of British Plants. The book was intended for use in the field, and achieved considerable popularity, with a further eight editions published over the next 20 years.
MacGillivray moved to Edinburgh and thus started the most productive period of his life. During the 1830's he wrote 27 scientific papers; 13 books, including the first two volumes of his History of British Birds, the most detailed ornithological work published in the UK at the time; and assisted Audubon with his Ornithological Biography. He was editor of the Edinburgh Journal of Natural History and Physical Science and contributed the section on web-footed birds to the seventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. During this period he also became conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons (a post he held for eight years) and compiled their new catalogue. In addition to this incredible output, MacGillivray also found time to paint and maintained his passion for birds above all other interests--he hoped one day 'to merit the name ornithologist'.
In 1841 MacGillivray moved back to Aberdeen to accept the appointment as Regius Chair of Natural History at Marischal College. After many years spent occupying supporting roles, this was his first academic appointment. He revolutionised the way students were taught, by taking them out into the field. He ensured that they examined specimens and established, largely at his own expense, a teaching museum, which still exists today. Finding that there were no suitable textbooks he produced his own field guide. He was committed to ensuring that his students had a thorough understanding of zoology, botany, geology and natural history--what today might be called ecology. MacGillivray continued with his publications and research, and during the last period of his life published the final two volumes of his History of British Birds. He began work on The Natural History of Deeside and Braemar which was eventually published posthumously by Queen Victoria. The research for this book left him ill and he was advised to leave Aberdeen. While he was away his wife, Marion, mother of his 13 children, died. He returned to Aberdeen and died a few months later, on 8th September 1852 at the age of 56.
Despite his prodigious output and the respect he won from his students, the name MacGillivray is little known today. Two main factors help explain why he has received so little recognition--his unpopularity amongst his scientific colleagues, and his financial situation, which prevented him from funding the publication of his watercolours.
With an absolute conviction in his own ability and a tendency to be outspoken, MacGillivray did not court popularity. He had strong opinions and was not afraid to voice them. He particularly despised 'cabinet naturalists'--those who examined specimens in their own studies without ever seeing the creature in its natural habitat and those who had little or no understanding of dissection or anatomy. He took great delight in pointing out their errors. Some of the most influential scientists of the day were cabinet naturalists and they were able to take their revenge.
When MacGillivray's History of British Birds was published, those scientists gave it appalling reviews--criticising it for being too scientific and without appeal for the general public (its intended audience). They mocked his suggested classification scheme, his writing style and criticised the work for plagiarising Audubon's Ornithological Biography which was wholly unfair as MacGillivray himself had written the majority of that book.
Another author, William Yarrell, published his identically titled History of British Birds at the same time. This volume was given glowing reviews and became the preferred work for the next 50 years. W.H. Mullen writing in British Birds in 1909 records the effect of these bad reviews:
The word went forth that MacGillivray's work was choked with anatomical details.
The half truth repelled the public. A History of British Birds was doomed to oblivion and the chamber naturalists returned to their discussions in triumph. That they had, incidentally, broken the heart of the greatest ornithologist that this country has ever produced, that they nearly prevented the completion of one of the greatest books on British birds, was to them of course, not a matter of the least importance.
Other works on the market at the time may have had more appeal to the public than MacGillivray's publications because they were published in single volumes and could be more easily carried around in the field. Furthermore, his book was filled with black-and-white woodcuts to illustrate the anatomical details of parts of the birds, but did not include any images of the whole animal. Despite having less scientific content, MacGillivray's competitors illustrated their books with colour images of whole birds which, as well as being more attractive, may have been more useful to the amateur enthusiast wishing to identify a species.
Although MacGillivray painted and sketched throughout his life and was aware of his talent as an artist, he never considered studying art or undertaking any formal training. He was first and foremost a naturalist.
Between 1830 and 1840, MacGillivray produced a series of bird watercolours while working with Audubon on the scientific text to accompany Birds of America--an ambitious project to publish Audubon's life-size paintings of all the bird species found in North America. Audubon's work was revolutionary not just because the images were life-size but also because they depicted birds in natural positions, in their wild environment, often with the male, female, young and food source depicted. This was a huge departure from the 'stump and stare' school that painted birds on their own, usually in contrived or unnatural poses. Although Audubon and MacGillivray's works are more naturalistic in style, they too were painted from specimens--it was their observations in the field that allowed them to position and portray the birds more naturally.
There can be little doubt that the partnership with Audubon heavily influenced MacGillivray's style, but his work also stands out in its own right. His scientific observations of birds and mammals in their natural habitats enabled him to paint with great certainty and meticulous detail. He had an innate talent and understanding for composition, and created a sense of tension in his paintings. Some of his paintings reveal an engaging emotional response to nature--the scientific illustrator becomes artist, understanding, feeling and representing the majesty of his subjects. Unlike Audubon, who was a master of many different media, MacGillivray seems to have painted exclusively in watercolour, a natural choice for painting birds and foliage quickly, with good colour and detail. It was also probably the most economical medium available.
MacGillivray exhibited some of his paintings during his lifetime. An exhibition was held at the Wernerian Society in the 1830s and the paintings were well received. Audubon commented that they were 'decidedly the best representations of birds I have seen'. However the only MacGillivray paintings to be published in his lifetime were some mammal portraits that were used in a History of British Quadrupeds, a volume in Sir William Jardine's The Naturalist's Library.
The reasons that most of MacGillivray's work was never published were largely financial. He did not have the resources to fund his own publications and was unable to find a publisher to back him after his written work had received such criticism. He did not use any of the cheaper methods of printing, such as lithography, that were being used by his contemporaries. He did not attempt to seek subscribers like Audubon. As a result, MacGillivray's work and his artistic merit have never been critically evaluated or put into a historical context.
To summarise, as MacGillivray wrote in the preface to a History of British Birds:
commenced in hope and carried with zeal, though ended with sorrow and sickness, I can look upon my work without much regard to the opinions which contemporary writers may form of it, assured that what is useful in it will not be forgotten, and knowing that it has already had a beneficial effect on many of present and will more powerfully influence the next generation of our home ornithologists. I had been led to think that I had occasionally been somewhat rude or at least blunt, in my criticism; but I do not perceive wherein I have much erred in that respect, and I feel no inclination to apologise. I have been honest and sincere in my endeavours to promote the truth. With death apparently not distant before my eyes, I am pleased to think that I have not countenanced error, through fear of favour. Though I might have accomplished more, I am thankful for having been permitted to add very considerably to the knowledge previously obtained of a very pleasant subject.