A Further History of Uncommon Birds, most of which have not been figur’d or describ’d, and others very little known from obscure or too brief descriptions without figures, or figures very ill designed. Illustrated ornithological manuscript. 32 pages. Contains paired illustrations and text descriptions on facing pages of 18 birds, as well as three unaccompanied illustrations.
Manuscrit ornithologique illustré décrivant des oiseaux peu communs. 32 pages. Contient des illustrations et des descriptions en vis à vis de 18 oiseaux ainsi que trois illustrations sans description. Plume et encre, dessins coloriés à la main dans carnet de croquis avec reliure en papier japonais et cordon en cuir.
The story behind A Further History of Uncommon Birds, the newest acquisition to the University of Waterloo’s rare books division, is rare indeed. This single volume was originally part of a bequest to the state by Mr. George Pimm—a wealthy landowner whose estate once covered half of Wiltshire county. The supposed author of the text, a certain Phillip S. Fairmount, proclaims in his preface that the work is a continuation of the studies pursued by 18th century British naturalist George Edwards and recorded in Edwards’ 1758 publication, A Natural History of Uncommon Birds. Edwards’ protracted sub-title for his work— “Most of which have not been figur'd or describ'd, and others very little known from obscure or too brief descriptions without figures, or from figures very ill design'd”—was also appended to the title of the “Fairmount” text.
At first, the “Fairmount” manuscript incited little interest: it was entrusted to the Wiltshire county archives where it sat for over fifty years, until Mrs. Evelyn John—engaged in a personal research project regarding the history of ornithology in the region—finally drew attention to the text in 1953. In her perusal of the manuscript, Mrs. John had been surprised to find that, although “Fairmount” cites the work of George Edwards as his influence and inspiration, mimics the style and layout of the earlier naturalists’ work, and proposes to describe many of the same bird species (“The King of the Vultures,” “The Solitary Sparrow,” “The Black and Spotted Heath Cock,” “The Coot Footed Tringa”), the descriptions included under these headings diverged startlingly from Edwards’ earlier work. It seemed hardly plausible to John that the author’s descriptions pertained to the same species to which Edwards referred—if indeed they pertained to any species at all. After a brief investigation, John was able to confirm that A Further History of Birds was a work not of fact, but of the most inventive fiction. It would take another fifty-seven years, however, and a most unlikely source, for the true author, and impetus behind the curious manuscript, to be finally brought to light.
The recovery of the journals of Mr. George Pimm’s wife, Phyllis Pimm—which had been in the possession of Mrs. Pimm’s great-neice, Mrs. Truina Cunningham, and gifted to the state in the fall of 2010—finally provided the key to the mystery. The candid descriptions provided in Ms. Pimm’s journals of the men and women with whom she engaged romantically between 1855 and 1889 reveal a striking correspondence to the information recorded in A Further History: it now appears clear that the text is a rather loosely coded “natural history” of Ms. Pimm’s personal exploits.
A team of interdisciplinary researchers from the Universities of Kent, Cambridge, and Waterloo are currently engaged in a further study of the text, which indeed offers scholars an unprecedented glimpse into details of nineteenth century upper middle-class life that, until this valuable discovery, had yet to be either “figur’d or describ’d.”