Delving into the Booth Museum libraries we uncover the beautiful bird drawings of Victorian illustrator, Edward Neale. Neale illustrated Edward Thomas Booth’s published diaries.
The main legacy that Edward Booth (1840-1890) left to the town of Brighton was his famous Museum of British Birds on Dyke Road. Hundreds of species of birds are preserved in the museum in specially designed cases which reflect their ‘natural surroundings’. But his collection was not his only legacy; we have his diaries, his punt, his rifles and even some of his clothing. We also have his library and it is there that we can discover his important illustrated work: Rough Notes on the birds observed during 25 years’ shooting and collecting in the British Islands.
There are 3 large volumes of these wonderful books. They contain descriptions of all the species he encountered, accompanied by beautiful hand-painted pictures of the birds he chose to illustrate. However, he was not the artist; instead, he chose to ask the painter Edward Neale to prepare paintings for reproduction. Until recently very little was known about Neale, but during the last few years I have been digging into Neale’s background and the results of his research were recently published1.
Neale was born in Speen, Berkshire. His father was a wine merchant and shopkeeper from Norfolk. The last of eight children, it is extraordinary that all his seven siblings were female. It appears that Neale had a talent for drawing and perhaps his childhood in the country produced a love of ornithology; by the time he was 25 he was exhibiting in the Royal Academy, the British Institution and at the Society of British Artists. Clearly this drew him to the attention of the country’s leading bird scientists and in 1862 he was asked to contribute 38 wood engravings to a very popular book on British birds, The illustrated natural history by the Rev. John George Wood, a great populariser of nature. His work also appeared in several other popular books, but all in black and white engravings. His first coloured plates appeared in a series of volumes published by the very respected ornithologist Henry Dresser (1838-1915). His History of the birds of Europe is one of the most famous books on the subject, and Neale contributed 28 plates.
Neale’s abilities were at some point recognised by Edward Booth who asked him to take on the task of painting plates for his Rough Notes, modelled on the cases of stuffed birds that filled his Museum. We don’t know how they met. Booth had met Henry Dresser when they were both young men; perhaps Dresser gave Neale an introduction. Maybe they had met in Brighton; by chance three of Booth’s sisters had set up private schools in Hove, the first in 1874 and so it is entirely possible that Edward joined his sisters occasionally and introduced himself to Booth, just at the time the museum first opened its doors. Whatever the case, Neale was tasked by Booth to illustrate the whole of his large work and in the end produced 114 hand-coloured lithographed folio-sized plates. Booth’s collection also contains 4 watercolours by Neale, all of eagles. Before working for Booth, Neale had mostly painted game birds such as ptarmigan, pheasants, quail and ruffs, so working on many more varied species must have been a very welcome opportunity for a change.
Booth died in 1890. Neale’s work appeared in several other significant published works but soon after the turn of the century his commissions were fewer as he suffered the ravages of cancer, dying in November 1904.
Neale never entered the uppermost ranks of bird artists. But he deserves more recognition; his published work is of a very high standard and drew many plaudits. It is clear that as well as his work for ornithological publications, Neale also painted many other large works in oils as paintings in their own right, but few of these have been seen, occasionally turning up in auctions and specialist dealers.
Neale died a bachelor, devoted to his art.
John Cooper, Emeritus Keeper of Natural Sciences at the Booth Museum
1Edward Neale (1833-1904), bird illustrator; Archives of Natural History 46.2 (2019), 283-297.