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Book of the Month

July 2009

Thomas Martyn


 The Universal Conchologist
London: 1789
Sp Coll Hunterian Add.f63

This month we feature one of the most beautiful conchological (ie. shell) books of all time, The Universal Conchologist by Thomas Martyn. Begun in 1784, the book took several years to produce and after one failed attempt a second edition was published to wide acclaim. Mainly composed of hand coloured engravings, it was intended to be a guide to all known shells.

Crimson and Purple snail (Limax Coccinea and Limax Purpurata): Figure 68m
These were found in New Zealand and were part of Thomas Martyn's personal shell collection

Much of what is known about Thomas Martyn comes from his publications, and he is often confused with a distinguished contemporary botanist of the same name in some bibliographies1. His exact birth and death dates are not known, but it is thought that he lived between 1760-1816. A native of Coventry, he resided at several London addresses throughout his career, most notably 10, Great Marlborough Street, Westminster, where he established his academy for the painting of Natural History2. Martyn was a man of education, being fluent in French, some Latin and possibly Greek. The fact that he could dedicate The Universal Conchologist to the King indicates that he was of some standing and properly vouched for3. Nothing is known about his wife and family, or of the circumstances of his death.

Crimson snail (Limax Coccinea)
Martyn had a wide range of interests which are apparent from his other publications. His first work was an essay on ballooning, with a coloured frontispiece of a dirigible balloon of his own design. This was followed by The Universal Conchologist, and then by a pamphlet on a proposed national assessment for the maintenance of disabled soldiers. This was followed by another work of natural history, the English Entomologist; this included illustrations of over 500 beetles. There then came a book on spiders, plates of plants and lepidopterous insects, an anti-Napoleonic pamphlet, and another entitled Great Britain's jubilee monitor. Lastly he published and edited a publication on The natural system of colours.
Martyn wanted to gain a good reputation as an author. In order to achieve such recognition, he sent presentation copies of The Universal Conchologist to most of the crowned heads of Europe. He consequently became the happy recipient of medals from the pope, the emperor of Germany, and the King of Naples among others4. Martyn then used engravings of the medals and letters that he received in thanks to advertise his impending publications; in this way, he encouraged interest  in them, ensuring that there were eager buyers waiting for their completion. One such endorsement came from Baron Ignatius Born, who replied to Martyn on behalf of the German emperor saying: "Natural history would make a rapid progress, if we could have paintings of all the organised bodies in nature executed with equal accuracy and fidelity.. But we want artists, who are at the same time connoisseurs in natural history, to execute the whole with proper precision"5.


Purple snail (Limax Purpurata)

Echinated snail: Figure 26o
Found in Pulo Condore and part of Thomas Martyn's personal shell collection

Shell collecting had become very popular during the 17th century. It was a hobby that was favoured by many affluent people, amongst whom there was a great vogue for having a cabinet of curiosities containing rare shells and unusual natural objects with which to entertain guests. But it was not until the 18th century that these newly discovered - yet unrecorded - animals, plants and shells were considered in a more scientific way. This led to an explosion of illustrated natural history books cataloguing various groups of animals, plants and shells6.
Sun Trochus (Heliotropium): Figure 30q
Found in New Zealand
In the mid 18th century understanding of Pacific geography and natural history was fragmentary. There was knowledge of Australia and New Zealand, but it was incomplete and most of the other islands were unknown. However, this was all about to change as exploration of the Pacific was made a priority and several European countries became involved. The most famous voyages of discovery were those lead by Captain Cook: there were three in total, and they took place over 12 years. They opened up many opportunities for nature study and naturalists were always on board throughout the expeditions. Unfortunately, however, conchology was not the main interest of any of the naturalists who sailed with Captain Cook and so there is little information to be gleaned about the mollusc and shell collecting that occurred. The shell excursions that are briefly mentioned were often made with the intention of collecting food, not shell specimens. However, many of the officers and seamen travelling with Cook brought back with them collections of shells and other "natural curiosities". But they were not doing this in the name of science; they were actually collecting such items to sell on their return. Such material was rare in Europe and a handsome profit could be made by selling it to dealers, who in turn sold on to wealthy collectors. Thomas Martyn was present at the return of the third Cook voyage and purchased two thirds of the shells available for the large sum of 400 guineas!7

Arabic Bucc (Arabicum): Figure 52w
Found in New Zealand

But Martyn was not just a dealer or an avid collector; he was preparing to publish an illustrated catalogue of all of the shells of the world. Unlike other books on conchology, Martyn's work was to contain detailed full colour illustrations, with a minimum of text. At the time, the most beautiful and rare shells came from the South Seas and so Martyn decided that his first two volumes would be dedicated to shells either newly discovered or not previously described, from voyages in the Pacific since the year 1764. Unfortunately Martyn did not distinguish between shells collected by Cook's men, and those collected on earlier voyages to the Pacific.

In the introduction to his book he wrote: "the long descriptions and details of the generation and properties of shells, given by most writers of Conchology, are wholly omitted here; and the utmost care has been taken that each figure, by being an extract and faithful transcript from nature, shall be sufficiently explanatory of the subject which it represents".

Basket Cockle (Corbis): Figure 80ii
Found in Pulo Condore
Martyn required assistance for his hand-coloured illustrations but experienced difficulty in finding artists skilled enough to carry out his work. Miniature painters were too expensive and others could not apply the minute detail required. So he decided to open an academy for painting Natural History8. Martyn "thought it probable that in the productions of boys, all of whom, had received their first rudiments of good taste from the same time common preceptor, and who should execute whatever they did under his immediate inspection and control, there would generally be found that uniformity and equality of style, conception, and execution which it would be in vain to require from a variety of independent artists" 9.


He then went about finding boys "born of good but humble parents" who had a natural talent for drawing and design, but "could not from their means aspire to the cultivation of any liberal art". The first young man he employed made rapid progress and was after a year able to serve as a tutor himself when two other boys were employed. Eventually Martyn's academy for the painting of Natural History consisted of nine young men10. The academy seems to have been a source of pride to Martyn and he describes it with the declaration "that in this little seminary duty toward God and man is earnestly enforced, since the conductor of it would feel it a nobler boast to have educated one good citizen than any number of artists, however ingenious"11.

The quality of the boys' illustrations grew rapidly and orders were beginning to be placed for copies of the proposed book. The boys would make drawings of the shells which were then used as a basis for hand coloured, stipple-engraved plates.

70 copies of the first two volumes, each containing 40 plates, were completed. But as standards had improved over the three years since the academy opened, Martyn decided that they were of poor quality and rejected them to begin again "in that improved style of execution which was ultimately to determine the fate and reputation of the work"12.

Crumpled Cowry (Tortilis): Figure 60z

Crumpled Cowry found in the Friendly Isles
Owing to the lower than expected number of newly discovered South Sea shells, instead of showing several similar shells of each species on a plate which had been the original plan, Martyn decided to show two different views of the same shell.  He states this in his introduction: "The author presumes that the method which he has adopted, of displaying the figure of each shell in two positions, would generally be preferred. as it would have been impossible, from so small a number as the South Sea shells afford, to select proper companions of the same size and genus to be given in the same plate, and that, too, repeatedly".

Arabic Bucc (Arabicum): Figure 52w


The complete four volume set of folios contains 160 plates, the first 80 illustrating shells brought back from the voyages to the South Seas. The second set of 80 plates illustrates the figures of "every known shell". There are suggestions in the literature that Martyn had planned to produce more volumes, as some additional plates have been found that may have been intended for volume 513. Unfortunately, Martyn had to give up the project as it was proving to be too ambitious and expensive. But the work that was produced, even if incomplete, is one of the most beautiful and well illustrated of the conchological works of the time.

Hand coloured frontispiece bordered in gilt with an unnamed shell
Our copy of The Universal Conchologist consists of the first two folio volumes bound as one volume. This is the most commonly found form of the work14. It has a hand coloured frontispiece bordered in gilt, 80 hand coloured plates, and one engraved plate of medals; there are also two title-pages, a dedication, and two engraved tables. The only text (both in French and English) is found at the beginning of the book in the introduction and preface; the rest of the book consists of the coloured plates. The full title of the work is: "The Universal Conchologist, exhibiting the figure of every known shell accurately drawn and painted after nature: with a new systematic arrangement by the author."

Detail from the unnamed shell pictured above
The exact publishing date of The Universal Conchologist is a bibliographical puzzle. It is commonly thought to have been produced in 1784, but actually only the first 80 plates (volumes one and two) were published at that date. Forty more plates were published in 1786 (volume 3), and the entire 160 plate work (including the final fourth volume) was published in 1787. Confusion has arisen owing to the fact that the dates on title pages were changed twice and copies are known to exist dated 1784, 1787 and 178915.


Martyn was adamant that his work should be accurate and produced to the highest possible standards. Lyle suggests that Martyn went one step further and printed the book himself. This would explain some of the bibliographical irregularities of the work - for example, there is no imprint (only Martyn's address is given), the format is unusual as it involves a considerable waste of paper and is not likely to have been used by a printer at the time, and the catchwords are arranged strangely. Lyle agrees that this is not definite proof of his theory, but reminds us that it was not unusual for a person of means to set up his own press for printing at this time16.

Sun Trochus (Heliotropium): Figure 30q
Another point of interest relates to the names given to the shells in the book. Although Martyn was known to follow the system of Linnaeus in some of his other works of natural history, in producing this conchological work he proposed his own system while preserving a binomial nomenclature17. His leading idea was to produce illustrations which were such "exact and faithful transcripts from nature" that they would be sufficient in explaining themselves. He intended to explain his system of nomenclature at the close of the 160 plate work. But since production ceased on the completion of the fourth volume of this work, and the suggested fifth volume was never issued, Martyn's system was never made public.



Fibrous snail (Limax fibratus): Figure 25n
This was found in the Friendly Isles.  Central image shows detail from the right hand side image.
The only clue we have about the provenance of our copy of The Universal Conchologist is a bookplate which says "ex musaeo Hans Fürstenberg". It is likely that this refers to Hans Fürstenberg (1890-1982) who left Germany for political reasons in 1938 to find a new home in France as Jean Fürstenberg18. He was the only son of Carl Fürstenberg, an eminent and influential private banker of Imperial Germany; although he followed his father into the banking business, his own interests lay in art and philosophy and his love of literature led him at an early age to start collecting books19. His two main fields of interest were French 18th century illustrated books and German literature of the classical and pre-classical period20. When Fürstenberg died, his collections were divided and auctioned off in a variety of different places.

Heart Muscle (Mytilus Cor): Figure 77gg
Found in New Zealand and part of Thomas Martyn's personal shell collection

Produced in an era when natural history was a fashionable pastime among the nobility and upper classes, The Universal Conchologist is a high quality publication intended for such an audience. Its accurate portrayal of several newly discovered shells of the time makes it useful in the study of conchological history, and it is also appealing as a well preserved example of a hand coloured late 18th century book.

Brown, Thomas. Illustrations of the conchology of Great Britain and Ireland. Drawn from nature, by Captain Thomas Brown. Edinburgh, W.H. Lizars and D. Lizars 1827. Sp Coll f274

Hanley, Sylvanus Charles Thorp. Conchologia Indica : illustrations of the land and fresh-water shells of British India. London, 1876. Sp Coll RQ 697

Martini, Friedrich Heinrich Wilhelm. Neues systematisches Conchylien-Cabinet geordnet und beschrieben von Friedrich Heinrich Wilhelm Martini ...  Nürnberg, 1769-1788. 10 v. Sp Coll Hunterian L.3.10-19

Mendes da Costa, Emanuel. Historia naturalis testaceorum Britanniae, or The British conchology; containing the descriptions and other particulars of natural history of the shells of Great Britain and Ireland. Printed for the author; and sold by Messrs. Millan, B. White, Elmsley, and Robson, booksellers 1778. Sp Coll Hunterian Add. f56

Sowerby, G. B. A conchological Manual. London, H. G. Bohn 1846. Library Level 5 Zoology CN14 1846-S

Sowerby, G. B. Illustrated index of British shells : containing figures of all the recent species with names and other information. London, Simpkin, Marshall and Co. 1859. Sp Coll Hunterian Add. q46

Swainson, William. Exotic conchology; or figures and descriptions of rare, beautiful, or undescribed shells. London, H. G. Bohn 1841. Sp Coll f264

The following have been useful in creating this article:

Amelung, Peter. (1968). The Book Collector. 17: 226-233. Library Research Annexe Store Pm4151

Breslauer, B. H. (1960). Contemporary Collectors XXV: Jean Furstenberg. The Book Collector. 9: 423-434. Library Research Annexe Store Pm4151

Breslauer, B. H. (1982). Jean Furstenberg, 1890-1982: Portrait of a bibliophile. The Book Collector. 31: 427-445. Library Research Annexe Store Pm4151

Dall, W. H. (1905). Thomas Martyn and the Universal Conchologist. Proceedings of the United States National Museum. 29(1425): 415-432. Library Research Annexe Store Pm3337

Dance, S. P. Delights for the eyes and mind. A brief survey of conchological books. ( last accessed 25 June 2009)

Dance, S. P. (1971). The Cook voyages and conchology. Journal of Conchology. 26(6): 354-379. Library Research Annexe Store Pm2826

Dance, S. P. (1986). A History of shell collecting. Leiden, The Netherlands : E.J.Brill. p69-73. Library Level 5 Zoology CN10 1986-D

Iredale, Tom. (1921). Unpublished plates of Thomas Martyn, Conchologist. Proceedings of the Malacological Society. 14(4): 131-134. E-resource

Lyle, I. F. (1969). Thomas Martyn's The Universal Conchologist: an early copy and a theory. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History. 5(2): 141-143.

McConnell, Anita. (2004). 'Martyn, Thomas (fl. 1779-1811)'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. (, accessed 25 June 2009)

News and Comment. The Book Collector (2000). Volume 49, pg 402. Library Research Annexe Store Pm4151

Smith, B. (1985). European Vision and the South Pacific. Yale University Press. p213-214. Library Level 11 Fine Arts A7690 SMI

Van Doren, Phyllis. (1982). Conchologia curiosa: A history of shell collecting and its curiosities or what did they do with all those shells! Environment Southwest. Autumn edition p13-17. [not available in library]

Weiss, H. B. (1938). Thomas Martyn, Conchologist, entomologist and pamphleteer of the Eighteenth Century. The American Collector. 3(2): 57-62. [not available in library]

References cited in text

1. Dall 1905
2. McConnell 2004, Weiss 1938
3. Dall 1905
4. Smith 1985
5. Smith 1985
6. Van Doren 1982
7. Dance 1971
8. Lyle 1969, Smith 1985
9. Dance 1986
10. Dance 1986, Weiss 1938
11. Dall 1905
12. Dance 1986
13. Iredale 1921
14. Iredale 1921
15. Weiss 1938
16. Lyle 1969
17. Dall 1905
18. Amelung 1968, Breslauer 1960, 1982
19. Breslauer 1960
20.Amelung 1968, Breslauer 1960, 1982

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Anna Walker (Graduate Trainee on placement in Special Collections), July 2009