A Tapestry of British Bird Song. VICTOR C. LEWIS
(EMI 1964)

 ‘A Tapestry of British Bird Song’ was the first long-playing (LP) record to be released in the UK that focused solely on the sounds of birds. Issued by E.M.I. in 1964, this record provided the listener with almost an hour of content, covering over fifty bird species such as the Nightingale, Blackbird, Skylark, Robin and Tawny Owl. The publication was the brainchild of one Victor C. Lewis, an electrical engineer and amateur ornithologist who since the late 1950s had been steadily amassing his own library of natural field recordings. Lewis used both field recordings and spoken notes to guide the listener through the different bird habitats, “from the dawn chorus to the concert at dusk”, featured on the LP.

Lewis prided himself on his patience, perseverance and, above all, his field techniques. He preferred the open mic method, believing that this was the only way to naturally reproduce the songs and calls of the bird, and would spend hours studying his subjects in order to choose the best microphone placement. He was also known for his ingenuity, having once powered his recorder by plugging it into a streetlamp in Windsor Great Park. Before dawn, Lewis arrived at the park, armed with a ladder and torch, and proceeded to scale the chosen streetlamp, remove the glass cover and plug in his cables to power his recorder. Once the dawn chorus had been successfully recorded, Lewis removed the cabling, replaced the lamp cover and quickly made his way home! This resourceful, and quite possibly illegal, strategy meant that Lewis was able to complete his objective.

‘A Tapestry of British Bird Song’ stayed in the E.M.I. catalogue for more than a decade and sold around 25,000 copies. James Fisher, a renowned wildlife broadcaster with the BBC, wrote of Lewis:

“With this record Victor Lewis enters the front rank of British bird song recordists. To the ornithologist his marvellous Woodlark and Reed Warbler recordings will doubtless be regarded as classics.”

The Victor Lewis archive, held at the British Library, is a remarkable example of one man’s passion for documenting the sounds of nature at a time when field recording was still a blossoming genre. ‘A Tapestry of British Bird Song’ is just one title from Lewis’ extensive discography and I’m sure there are many more unpublished gems in his collection that are still waiting to be discovered.

-Cheryl Tipp

Victor C. Lewis discography

Cheryl Tipp

Wildlife sounds curator at British Library.