Roger Tory Peterson masterminded a revolution in bird-watching by producing a series of field guides with clear, easy-to-use illustrations printed in accurate color with a consistent orientation of his subjects.

Now of course there had been excellent books of color illustrations of birds before Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, written with Guy Mountfort and P. A. D. Hollom. But like John James Audubon’s they tended to be huge, expensive, and definitely non-portable: the sort of thing men who’d go out and shoot their bird in order to identify it might use. (Audubon himself would work from dead birds he had shot — he once claimed that it was a bad day if he didn’t get at least 100!)

My copy of the British Peterson guide, which I got while I was at still at school, probably in 1956 or 1957, is showing its age, though the damage is pretty much restricted to the jacket, which miraculously survives. The binding, of bright blue linen cloth is still tight, though, as you can see below, the front endpaper has split down the spine fold.

Paradoxically the jacket scarcely fits the book — in the top photo see the type on the back flap almost rolling over onto the back panel. After so many printings this cannot be because the publisher just measured wrong: it has to mean that for this printing a bulkier sheet had to be used. Probably the paper used on the previous printings became unavailable at the last minute, and the nearest substitute was grabbed at.

As you can see the book was printed by Collins, the British publisher, at their own works, doubtless in Glasgow. Unusually, but justifiably in this case, the company who engraved the halftone blocks is credited. Gilchrist Bros., founded in 1893, continues trading in Leeds, now under the name Sun Strategy.

You can see a video about engraving blocks at Engraving a halftone block. I assume that “reproductions” here refers to the line illustrations, including maps as well as the halftones. In a letterpress job you had to have a block (a cut) made for every picture you wanted to print, which would then have to be fitted in with the type. There had to be some raised image for the ink to be carried on.

The color plates are indeed plates, printed separately on different (coated) paper and combined with the black and white text pages in the bindery/folding department. Given its age, unsurprisingly, the book is smyth sewn. The book is 352 pages long, xxxiv of front matter plus 318 text, and has an additional 64 pages of plates, 42 of them in color. It is bound in eleven 32-page sections each of which (after the first and last) is made up of smaller units around which a four-pager of plates is wrapped. These smaller sections are inserted into their neighboring section, resulting in the plates being distributed evenly throughout the book, each separated by 4, 8, or 16 pages of text. Clever book make-up requiring a clear mind in planning, as facing every plate we find its detailed description of it printed on text paper. More modern books in the stable don’t go in for this elaboration — they just print a chunk of the book on coated paper, binding it all together, leaving you to flick back or forward to the related text pages which end up further away from the color plates than in my early edition. Hand work like that clever inserting plan now costs so much more than it used to that we have devised means of avoiding any such elaboration at every turn. The trim size is 4½” x 7¼” — small enough I guess to fit in a pocket, though I have never carried my copy into the wild. The book cost 25 shillings, £1¼.

Roger Tory Peterson ultimately became a sort of mini-franchise, with guides to all sorts of things, trees, butterflies, and so on, plus of course regional bird guides Eastern USA, Western USA, Mexican Birds, just to name ones I own. In the USA these are published by Houghton Mifflin. Peterson was born in Jamestown, New York in 1908 and studied briefly at The Art Students League on 57th Street in Manhattan, before transferring to the more traditional National Academy of Design in the same building. While he was teaching at River’s School in Brookline, Mass. in the early 1920s he decided to create an illustrated guide to birds of the eastern United States. Publishers turned down the obviously too-expensive book till in 1934 the first edition of A Field Guide to the Birds was published by Houghton Mifflin, who printed 2,000 copies. By now of course they have sold millions. Peterson’s “system” was to show all the birds in a similar pose, with emphasis on key identification features indicated by arrows.

Back in the eighties I was an observer in the production of a two-volume Easton Press edition of Mr Peterson’s American bird paintings in their original size, The Field Guide Art of Roger Tory Peterson — I just happened to be there at the right time. These leather-bound books are huge, 11″ x 17″,* printed by John D. Lucas, Baltimore, on S. D. Warren’s 100# Lustro Dull with color separations by Red Rose Graphics of Lancaster, PA, and bound in Nashville at the Nicholstone Bindery where they’ve added fancy moiré endsheets. Here Mr Peterson’s paintings are presented as art, not as an identification tool.

He describes his “conversion experience” which occurred on 8 April 1920: “It was one of the first warm days of spring, when my friend Carl Hammerstrom, who lived up the street, and I crossed the railway tracks and climbed Swede Hill to explore new terrain south of town. As we entered a wood lot on the crest of the hill near the reservoir, I spotted a bundle of brown feathers clinging to the trunk of a tree. It was a flicker, probably exhausted from migration. The bird was sleeping, with its face buried in the fluffed feathers of its scapulars, but I thought it was dead. Gingerly, I touched it on the back. Instantly, this inert thing jerked its head around, looked at me with wild eyes, then exploded in a flash of golden wings and fled into the woods. What had appeared to be dead was very much alive. Ever since, birds have seemed to me the most vivid expression of life.”


* Audubon’s original paintings were somewhat larger than Peterson’s and were executed on double elephant paper the largest sheet available at 40″ x 27″. They were principally executed in water color but Audubon employed other media such as pencil, pastel and ink. They were definitely not all posed in the same position as an aid to identification as were Peterson’s. English engraver Robert Havell Jr. printed them on the same double elephant size sheet — they measure 29½” x 39½”: probably they got a little trim on all four sides. Printing by a combination of aquatint and etching, was of the outlines only. The colors were added by hand: at one time Havell had fifty men and women working on the job. The prints were offered for sale loose as folios of prints