Sowerby, James

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(b. London, England, March 1757; d. London, 25 October 1822)

nautral history,geology

Sowerby, son of John and Arabella Sowerby, was trained as an artist and studied at the Royal Academy of Arts. He married Anne de Carle, of Norwich; and their sons, particularly the eldest,James de Carle Sowerby (1787–1871), and the second George Bretlingham Sowerby (1788–1854), from an early age assisted him with his work. Their chidren, too, were artists and naturalists, so that throughout the nineteenth century there were Sowerbys illustrating works of natural history.

Sowerby is best known for his illustrations to English Botany, or Coloured Figures of British Plants, With Their Essential Characters. Synonyms, and Places of Growth (1790– 1814). The text was supplied by James Edward Smith, whose name was at first withheld, at his own request; an the work became widely known as Sowerby’s Botany. Sowerby’s skillful drawings, beautifully colored, and Smith’s accurate descriptions made it highly esteemed work that was frequently reissued later with supplements.

In 1802 Sowerby began to issue British Mineralogy, also with colored plates, in plates and followed. it with Exotic Mineralogy. More important was his Mineral Conchology of Great Britain, illustrating, “remains of Testaceous Animals or Shells,” issued in parts from 1812 and continued after his death by his son James de Carle. Although lacking any systematic arrangement, it was a valuable aid to collectors and is still important as a reference work. Sowerby also prepared illustrations many natural history works, including William Smith’s Strata Identified by Organized Fossils.

Not the least of Sowerby’s contributions to natural history was his vast correspondence with naturalists in Britain and abroad, in which he encouraged and advised collectors of plants, birds insects, fossils, and minerals. Specimens were sent to him for identification, and he sent in return other specimens as well as parts of his publications, thus stimulating further research. His own museum, at 2 Mead Place, Lambeth, was regularly visited by naturalists.


I. Original Works. There is a useful, although incomplete, list of Sowerby’s publications, with many bibliographical details, inCatalogue of the Books, Manuscripts, Maps and Drawings in the British Museum (Natural History), V (London, 1915), 1981–1983. See R. J. Cleevely, “A Provisional Bibliography of Natural History Works by the Sowerby Family”in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 6 (1974), 482–559. Sowerby’s herbarium and more than 2,500 original watercolor drawings for English Botany were purchased in 1859 by the British Museum (Natural History) which also bought his collection of about 5,000 fossils in 1861. A large collection of his correspondence is also in the museum. See Jessie Bell MacDonald, “The Sowerby Collection in the British Museum (Natural History): A Brief Description of Its Holdings...” ibid., 6 (1974), 380–401.

II. Secondary Literature. There is no definitive biography, but A. de C. Sowerby et al., The Sowerby Saga (Washington, 1952),has much information about family. An obituary notice appeared in Gentleman’s Magazine,92 , pt.2 (Dec.1822), 568. See also R.J.Cleevely,“The Sowerbys, the Mineral Conchology, and Their Fossil Collection,” in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History,6 (1974), 418–481.

Joan M. Eyles