Although he was born in Ireland, Donovan spent most of his life in London, where he became a collector of natural history specimens. These specimens, which included stuffed and preserved mammals, fish, reptiles and birds, insects, shells, corals and invertebrates, came from all around the world. The collection was so large that in 1807 Donovan opened a museum: The London Museum and Institute of Natural History.
Donovan enthusiastically studied his collections and became author and illustrator to a number of highly illustrated and colourful books on natural history, covering the subjects of botany, British birds, insects, fish and shells, and insects from India, China and Australia. The insect specimens for these works came from the voyages of Captain Cook.
The expense of natural history specimens, most of which Donovan bought at auction, and the excessive production costs of the luxury books that Donovan produced, meant that he, like many other natural-history illustrators died in debt.