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Born in Cork, Ireland, Donovan was an avid collector of natural history specimens purchased mainly at auctions of specimens from voyages of exploration. He was a Fellow of the Linnean Society and the Wernerian Natural History Society which gave him access to the best collections and libraries in London. It was quite common for private collectors to open small public museums, and in 1807 he founded the London Museum and Institute of Natural History. This exhibited several hundred cases of world birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, molluscs, insects, corals and other invertebrates and botanical specimens and other exotica alongside his British collections.
Donovan was, at first, the very successful author of a number of natural history titles, including Natural History of British Birds (1792–97), Natural History of British Insects (1792–1813), Natural History of British Fishes (1802–08) and the two-volume Descriptive Excursions through South Wales and Monmouthshire in the Year 1804, and the Four Preceding Summers (1805) and the short-lived Botanical Review, or the Beauties of Flora (London, 1789–90). He also wrote articles on Conchology, Entomology etc., made drawings and arranged the natural history plates in Rees's Cyclopædia and undertook commissions for private albums of his botanical artwork.
Apart from occasional excursions in England and Wales Donovan never left London. His Insects of New Holland is based on specimens collected by Joseph Banks and William Bayly an astronomer on the second and third voyages of James Cook, specimens in the collection of Dru Drury and other private collections as well as his own museum. It is the first publication dealing exclusively with the insects of Australia. In the preface Donovan writes "There is perhaps, no extent of country in the world, that can boast a more copious or diversified assemblage of interesting objects in every department of natural history than New Holland and its contiguous island". Most of the plates depict butterflies together with exotic plants. Donovan often used thick paints, burnished highlights, albumen overglazes and metallic paints. These covered the engravings (from his own copper plates, Donovan personally undertook all steps of the illustration process for his books, the drawing, the etching and engraving and the handcolouring) which are not visible. At other times the fineness of his engraving and etching is apparent giving his illustrations the appearance of being watercolours.
For An Epitome of the Natural History of the Insects of China he obtained specimens and information from George Macartney a British envoy to China.
For Insects of India Donovan described and figured specimens in his own cabinet, that were originally collected by the late Duchess of Portland, Marmaduke Tunstall, a Governor Holford (many years resident in India), a Mr. Ellis, George Keate, a Mr. Yeats, and a Mr. Bailey. He also studied the collections of John Francillon, Mr. Drury and Alexander Macleay. His patron was Joseph Banks. It is the first illustrated publication dealing with the entomology of India. The exact publication date, stated on the title page as being 1800, is also unclear as most plates are later; for example, the plate for Cicada indica is dated Feb 1, 1804. Many of the butterflies figured are from the Americas. In the works of Fabricius on which the Epitome was based "Indiis" confusingly refers to the West Indies or northern South America.
Donovan’s expensive purchases, his dealings with (according to him) unscrupulous book publishers, and the economic decline in England after the Napoleonic Wars, forced the closure of his museum in 1817 and the auction of his collection in 1818. He continued to publish, but his financial position worsened, and in 1833 he made a published plea for funds from his supporters to bring a lawsuit against the bookdealers and publishers who had later financed his works. This was to no avail, and he died penniless in 1837 leaving a large family destitute.
Beginning List Complete titles
- Botanical review, or the beauties of flora.[London], E.O. Donovan, 1789-1790.
- The natural history of British insects explaining them in their several states, with the periods of their transformations, their food, oeconomy, &c. together with the history of such minute insects as require investigation by the microscope, the whole illustrated by coloured figures, designed and executed from living specimens London Printed for the author, and for F. and C. Rivington, 1792-1813. 16 volumes with a total of 576 plates (568 coloured).
- The Natural History of British Birds; or, a Selection of the most Rare, Beautiful, and Interesting Birds which inhabit this country 10 volumes with a total of 244 plates, London, 1794-1819.
- The natural history of British fishes : including scientific and general descriptions of the most interesting species, and an extensive selection of accurately finished coloured plates, taken entirely from original drawings, purposely made from the specimens in a recent state, and for the most part whilst living by E. Donovan.London :Printed for the author, and for F. and C. Rivington, 1802-08.
- The Naturalist’s Repository, or Miscellany of Exotic Natural History Exhibiting Rare and Beautiful Specimens of Foreign Birds, Insects, Shells, Quadrupeds, Fish and Marine Productions. 5 volumes with a total of 180 plates, London, 1822-1827.
- The Natural History of British Shells, including Figures and Descriptions of all the Species Hitherto Discovered in Great Britain, Systematically Arranged in the Linnean Manner, with Scientific and General Observations on Each". 5 volumes.
- An Epitome of the Natural History of the insects of India, and the islands in the Indian Seas: Comprising upwards to two hundred and fifty figures and descriptions of the most singular and beautiful species, selected chiefly from those recently discovered, and which have not appeared in the works of any preceding author. The figures are accurately drawn, engraved, and coloured, from specimens of the insects; the descriptions are arranged according to the system of Linnaeus; with references to the writings of Fabricius, and other systematic authors. Printed for the Author by T. Bensley, London.
- An Epitome of the Natural History of the Insects of China Comprising Figures and Descriptions of Upwards of One Hundred New, Singular, and Beautiful Species; Together with some that are of Importance in Medicine, Domestic Economy, &c London: Printed for the Author, by T. Bensley, 1798.
- An Epitome of the Natural History of the Insects of New Holland, New Zealand, New Guinea, Otaheite, and other islands in the Indian, Southern and Pacific Oceans: including the figures and descriptions of one hundred and fifty-three species of the more splendid, beautiful, and interesting insects, hitherto discovered in those countries, and which for the most part have not appeared in the works of any preceding author. The figures are correctly delineated from specimens of the insects; and with the descriptions are arranged according to the Linnean system, with reference to the writings of Fabricius and other entomologists". London. 1805.
- Instructions for collecting and preserving various subjects of natural history : as quasrupeds, birds, reptiles, fishes, shells, corals, plants, &c. : together with a treatise on the management of insects in their several states; selected from the best authorities by E. Donovan.London, Rivington 1805 (2nd ed.)
- Bibliothèque Conchyliologique Paris,A. Franck
- Donovan, Edward (1792). The natural history of British insects: explaining them in their several states, with the periods of their transformations, their food, oeconomy, &c. together with the history of such minute insects as require investigation by the microscope: the whole illustrated by coloured figures, designed and executed from living specimens. London.
- http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/83272 Full text online
- Gilbert, P. 2000 Butterfly Collectors and Painters. Four centuries of colour plates from The Library Collections of The Natural History Museum, London. Singapore, Beaumont Publishing Pte Ltd.
- Jackson, C. E. 1985 Bird Etchings. The Illustrators and Their Books, 1655-1855. Cornell University Press.
- Lisney, A. A. 1960 Bibliography of British Lepidoptera 1608-1799. London
- Musgrave, A. 1932: Bibliography of Australian Entomology 1775 - 1930. Sydney.
- Salmon, M. A. 2000 The Aurelian Legacy. British Butterflies and their Collectors. Martins, Great Horkesley : Harley Books. ISBN 0-946589-40-2
- Media related to Edward Donovan at Wikimedia Commons
- Zoologica Göttingen State and University Library
- Hunt Institute
- Google Books Insects of New Holland (1805).
- University of Massachusetts Library