You are currently viewing The original illustrations of the Roberts Birds of South Africa book

The original illustrations of the Roberts Birds of South Africa book

A little while ago I visited Graaff-Reinet for a Karoo Heartland Marketing Association meeting at the Drostdy hotel. I arrived a little early and noticed tons of bird pictures up on the walls. While admiring them somebody asked if I knew that they were the original illustrations of the Roberts Birds of South Africa book. Say what? Now there’s something I didn’t know.

Austin Roberts’ The Birds of South Africa was first published in 1940 and has been in print ever since. It is the second best-selling book in South Africa after the Bible. In December 1935 the South African Bird Book Fund was formed to fund a complete and up-to-date new bird book for southern Africa under the authorship of Austin Roberts, and illustrated by Norman C.K. Lighton. And here I was standing in front of the original illustrations on display in the restaurant and foyer of the Drostdy Hotel. A true piece of Africana. Who would have known? Not me obviously.

Who was Austin Roberts?

Roberts, son of Alfred Roberts (church minister) and Marianne Fannin (naturalist and flower artist), was born in Pretoria and grew up in Potchefstroom. He gained much of his early knowledge of zoology from Thomas Ayres (1828–1913), one of South Africa’s first amateur ornithologists. Ayres taught Roberts to skin birds and small mammals as well as the importance of keeping accurate records on every specimen. He also encouraged Roberts to study birds systematically.

Roberts was employed by the Transvaal Museum in 1910 as a temporary zoological assistant and in 1913 he was given a permanent position and put in charge of the museum’s bird and mammal collections. He remained at the Transvaal Museum for 38 years until 1946, but it seems that his lack of formal education retarded both his professional advancement and recognition. Throughout his career, he described and named 429 bird taxa (Taxa are the hierarchical divisions of a species from Kingdom to subspecies) and 406 mammal taxa. His approach to taxonomy was to create a new genus, species or subspecies based on slight differences, a method he defended vigorously. His new genera were not generally well received by the “systematists” and the majority of the new genera, species and subspecies were not accepted. However, owing to his vast field experience he came to be regarded as the greatest authority on South African birds and mammals.

He was author of several manuscripts and articles in scientific publications, including over a hundred papers in the Annals of the Transvaal Museum, Journal of the South African Ornithologists’ Union and The Ostrich. His book “The birds of South Africa”, illustrated by Norman C.K. Lighton, was the first comprehensive work on the subject. It has been revised and expanded by various experts and several editions published.

Early in 1948 he was offered the post of curator of the Queen Victoria Museum in Harare, but his death on 5 May 1948 in a motor car accident in the Transkei region prevented him from taking up the position. The flowering plants he collected are in the National Herbarium, Pretoria, while his fungi went to the National Collection of Fungi at the Plant Protection Research Institute in Pretoria.

His compilation of a comprehensive book on mammals was more or less completed at the time of his death and subsequently edited by R. Bigalke, V.F. Fitzsimons and D.E. Malan and published as The mammals of South Africa, with illustrations by P.J. Smit.

Roberts had also been planning a comprehensive bird book but at the time of his death had only completed the part dealing with sea birds. The work was eventually completed by P.A.R. Hocky, W.R.J. Dean and P.G. Ryan and published as Roberts birds of Southern Africa.

Who was Norman C.K. Lighton?

Lighton is far better known as a painter of birds than as an architect. He was born in Wonderboom near Pretoria and his father was an engineer on the South African Railways. He was apparently articled to an as yet unidentified firm of architects in Pretoria before joining the Public Works Department at the end of 1925 but was appointed a permanent member of staff only in 1929. He was promoted to architectural assistant Grade 1 in 1934 and was still listed as a staff member in 1938.

According to the Dictionary of South African Biography (Vol V), he was seconded to the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria in April 1936, by the Minister of Public Works to make the illustrations for Dr Austin Roberts’ book, The Birds of South Africa, first published in 1940. He had previously illustrated CD Priest’s The Birds of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), published in four volumes between 1933 and 1936.

Source – Wikipedia