Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Sharpe, Richard Bowdler

SHARPE, RICHARD BOWDLER (1847–1909), ornithologist, was born on 22 Nov. 1847, at 1 Skinner Street, Snow Hill, London, where his father, Thomas Bowdler Sharpe, edited and published 'Sharpe's London Magazine.' His grandfather, Lancelot Sharpe, was rector of All Hallows Staining, and headmaster of St. Saviour's grammar school, Southwark. From the age of six till nine Sharpe was under the care of an aunt, Mrs. Magdalen Wallace, widow of the headmaster of Sevenoaks grammar school, and herself a good classical scholar, who kept a preparatory school at Brighton. He afterwards gained a King's scholarship at Peterborough grammar school, where his cousin, the Rev. James Wallace, was master, and he became a choir-boy in the cathedral ; but subsequently he migrated to Loughborough grammar school when his cousin was appointed master there.

From 1863 to 1865 Sharpe was a clerk with Messrs, W. H, Smith and Son. From 1865 to 1866 he was in the employment of Bernard Quaritch, the bookseller, where he had access to the finest books about birds ; and from 1866 to 1872 he was the first librarian to the Zoological Society. Meanwhile he was from boyhood devoted to the study of birds, carefully observing them, and enjoying a day's shooting. When about sixteen, he began the 'Monograph of Kingfishers,' which was issued in quarterly parts (1868-71). Prof. Alfred Newton declared the work of the youthful author, 'though still incomplete as regards their anatomy,' to be 'certainly one of the best of its class.' One hundred and twenty-five species were described, and nearly all were 'beautifully figured by Keulemans.'

Sharpe then began a comprehensive 'History of the Birds of Europe,' in collaboration with Mr. H. E. Dresser ; but after fifteen parts were issued he abandoned the project on his appointment, in 1872, at the recommendation of Dr. John Edward Gray [q. v.], keeper of zoology in the British Museum, to the post of senior assistant in Gray's own department, to take charge of the birds. In 1895, on the recommendation of Sir William Flower, the director of the museum, a new post, that of assistant keeper of vertebrates, was created, and Sharpe was appointed to it. The sphere of his responsibilities was thus widened ; but his own work remained exclusively ornithological. This position he retained till his death. Sharpe was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1870, an honorary fellow of the Zoological Society in 1875, and became LL.D. of Aberdeen in 1891.

To Sharpe was entrusted the preparation of the British Museum Catalogue of Birds. Sharpe wrote no fewer than eleven of the twenty-seven volumes, with parts of two others, comprising more than 5000 species, fully described with bibliography and geographical distribution ; a volume by him appeared approximately every two years from 1874 to 1898. His second important official publication was 'A Hand-list of the Genera and Species of Birds' (5 vols. 1899-1909) ; the last volume was published just before his death. Largely owing to Sharpe's zeal, the ornithological collection under his control at the museum increased from 35,000 specimens to over half a million, four or five times the number in any other museum. The confidence of donors in the use to which Sharpe would put their gifts stimulated their generosity, as was admitted by Mi. Allen Hume, who gave his Indian collection, and by the marquess of Tweeddale, who gave his Asiatic series. In 1886, at Mr, Hume's request, Sharpe went to Simla to pack and bring home his collection of 82,000 specimens.

After the death of John Gould [q. v.] in 1881, Sharpe completed the series of illustrated works on ornithology which Gould left unfinished, including 'The Birds of Asia,' 'The Birds of New Guinea,' and monographs on the trogons and humming birds. The publication extended from 1875 to 1888. Sharpe completed the work in 1893 with an index and memoir. Similarly he issued a revised and augmented edition of E. L. Layard's 'Birds of South Africa' (1875-84) ; and after the death of Henry Seebohm [q. v.] in 1895, he edited and completed his 'Eggs of British Birds' (1896) and 'Monograph of the Thrushes' (1898-1902).

Sharpe edited Allen's ’Naturalists' Library ' in sixteen volumes, the first four volumes, on 'The Birds of Great Britain' (1894r-7), being his own writing. More important original contributions to systematic ornithology were his monographs of the swallows, in collaboration with C. W. Wyatt (1885-94), and of the birds of paradise (1891-8). He illustrated the fulness of his scientific knowledge in his catalogue of the osteological specimens in the College of Surgeons Museum (1891), and in the address on the classification of birds at the second International Ornithological Congress at Buda-Pest (1891), when the Emperor of Austria conferred upon him the gold medal for art and science. Sharpe was long a popvilar lecturer on ornithological topics, showing some exquisite lantern-slides. He issued the substance of some of his lectures as 'Wonders of the Bird World ' in 1898.

In 1892 Sharpe founded the British Ornithologists' Club, which organised research, especially with regard to migration; and in 1905 he presided over the International Ornithological Congress in London, giving a presidential address on the history of the British Museum collection. This he also described in an official volume containing biographies of the various collectors (1906).

A vice-president of the Selborne Society, Sharpe laboriously edited White's 'Natural History' (1900, 2 vols.; for the fancy portraits of White, Sharpe repudiated responsibility, cf. Nature Notes, 1902, p. 135). While preparing this edition, Sharpe lived much at Selborne, and thoroughly studied the architecture and records of the district. At his death he had printed part of a work on 'Gilbert White's Country,' and was engaged on a history of the siege of Basing House. He died of pneumonia, at his home in Chiswick, on Christmas Day 1909. Sharpe married in 1867 Emily, daughter of James Walter Burrows of Cookham, who survived him with ten daughters. In 1910 his widow and three daughters were awarded a civil list pension of 90l.

In addition to the literary work already mentioned, Sharpe supplied the ornithological portion of the 'Zoological Record' between 1870 and 1908, and he described the birds in the 'Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Erebus and Terror' (1875), in Frank Gates' 'Matabele Land' (1881), in the 'Voyage of H.M.S. Alert' (1884), in J. S. Jameson's 'Emin Pasha Relief Expedition' (1890), in the 'Second Yarkand Mission' (1891), and in the 'Voyage of the Southern Cross' (1902). He was also an extensive contributor to Cassell's 'New Natural History,' edited by Prof. Martin Duncan (1882), the 'Royal Natural History' (1896), and the volume on natural history in the 'Concise Knowledge Library' (1897).

[British Birds, 1910, iii. 273-288 (with a bibliography and photogravure portrait); Selborne Mag. 1910, xxi. 7, 127.]

G. S. B.