London-born artist John William Lewin (1770-1819) is said to have been a charming and personable man. He attracted the support of some wealthy and powerful patrons. Yet bad luck dogged his career and, though his work is highly esteemed today, he did not achieve, in his lifetime, the level of success that he had hoped for.
He learned to draw and paint from his father, William Lewin (1747-1795), a naturalist and professional artist chiefly remembered for his monumental seven-volume work The birds of Great Britain, with their eggs, accurately figured. For the first edition, issued in parts between 1789 and 1804, William painted the 323 watercolour illustrations sixty times over for his subscribers - an extraordinary feat. He died in the midst of preparing a second edition, using etched copper plates. It was left to his three sons to complete the task. Before the final volume of the second edition appeared in 1801, however, John had departed for Australia.
His sponsor was the great English entomologist and insect collector, Dru Drury, who wanted Lewin to send back to London hitherto unrecorded specimens from New South Wales. As well as gathering insects during his first years in the colony, Lewin painted them, hoping that an expertly illustrated book on moths might earn enough money to pay for his voyage home. He prepared the copper plates for the book in Sydney, then shipped them to his older brother, Thomas, to supervise printing in England. By the time Prodromus entomology, natural history of lepidopterous insects of New South Wales was ready for sale in 1805, however, Drury was dead and the English vogue for Australian wonders, which began with the publication of Arthur Phillip's Voyage to Botany Bay in 1789, had passed. The book was not a financial success.
For his next project, Lewin turned from moths (always of rather limited appeal) to birds. The procedure was the same as before: preparation in Sydney, printing in London. Lewin secured enough subscribers within Australia to ensure a profit. Then disaster struck. The consignment of the freshly printed Birds of New Holland was lost at sea in 1808 on the journey to New South Wales. Only a few copies left back in England survived.
Five years later, Lewin tried again with a second small edition, retitled Birds of New South Wales and printed in Sydney. Containing eighteen hand-coloured plates of warblers, thrushes and honeysuckers, it was the first illustrated book produced wholly within Australia. With only twelve copies known to exist, it has become one of the most prized of all Australian publications.
Lewin never did return to England. In his last years he was supported by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who planned to call frequently upon his artistic services but, to guarantee Lewin an income, appointed him city coroner.
The Library's copy of Birds of New South Wales was part of Sir George Grey's founding gift of 1887. A note in his handwriting on the title-page says, ‘This is the only copy I have seen - I value it highly.’