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Book of the Month

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September 2007

James de Carle Sowerby & Edward Lear

Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles

London: 1872 
Sp Coll e80

Our September book is a magnificent example of a Victorian colour plate book. Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles contains sixty hand coloured lithographs, beautifully executed by James de Carle Sowerby and Edward Lear (of nonsense verse fame). It forms the best collection of illustrations of tortoises and turtles ever produced.

 Testudo Tabulata (plate 1)

Published in 1872, this book's origins actually lie in a work that was produced some forty years earlier - the Monograph of the Testudinata by Thomas Bell (1792-1880). Bell's work was published by subscription between 1832 and 1836; eight parts were produced, each containing five plates. Although highly acclaimed, its publisher ran into financial difficulties and production of the parts ceased before the work was completed. The unsold parts and unpublished plates were bought by the publisher, Henry Sotheran, and the work was eventually published completely in this form as Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles. It contains twenty more plates than the original monograph, ordered slightly differently.

A pioneering dental surgeon by profession, Thomas Bell was also an eminent zoologist who was an expert on crustaceans. He became Professor of Zoology at King's College, London, in 1835 and was a founder member of the Zoological Society of London. His Monograph of the Testudinata has been described as the first comprehensive account of chelonians (that is, those reptiles distinguished by having the body enclosed in a double shell, and comprising the various species of tortoises and turtles). Bell aimed to describe all known species for the first time, including newly discovered varieties. At the time that he was writing, little scientific research had been undertaken in this area and there was much confusion in the arrangement and nomenclature of different species. Bell attributed many previous inaccuracies to the total absence of an illustrated monograph on the subject, 'a fatal obstacle to the acquisition of a correct knowledge of the described species.'

Bell's work was obviously intended to rectify this unsatisfactory state of misunderstanding. The original preface is interesting for its zealous tone as Bell justifies his great labour, demonstrating a typical nineteenth century desire to order and understand all of God's universe. He accepts that reptiles may have so far been neglected in favour of more attractive species, but exhorts: 'to the philosophical student of nature, - to him who seeks in his investigations for something beyond the mere gratification of the eye and ear, or the amusement to be derived from watching the changes of an insect, or the nidification of a bird, - to him, in short, who, in the expanded and almost boundless view of Nature which lies before him, endeavours to trace something of the great plan on which this world of life has been organized, and to ascertain the very principles of that mighty and harmonious system, of which every variety of form, and every grade of organization constitutes an essential part, - no class of beings, however forbidding their outward appearance may be, or with whatever attributes of dread and disgust superstition may have invested them, can be otherwise than interesting, and deserving the most careful and profound investigation.'

Emyda Punctata  (plate 56)

Trionyx Labiatus (plate 52)

Bell was at pains to base his research wherever possible on the study of living specimens. Much of the charm of his explanatory text lies in his first hand observations of the different species, although his work was evidently often frustrating. In his description of Trionyx Labiatus, for example, he ruefully recounts that he had high hopes of studying this 'beautiful and hitherto undescribed species' and that he obtained a living specimen from Sierra Leone: 'As the specimen was in good health and very active when I received it, I hoped that it might have been preserved for a considerable time, and have thus enabled me to watch its habits; a circumstance the more desirable, as it was the first instance of a Trionyx having been brought alive to this country. It died however after I had kept it for a few weeks, and I had been unable to get it to feed, though it would snap suddenly and violently at the finger or a stick, when held within a few inches of the mouth'.

This difficulty in keeping his subjects alive in unsuitable conditions meant that Bell's observations were actually often inadequate, and his overall work has been criticised for a lack of understanding of important behavioural characteristics, resulting in errors in classification. Most of the names that he used to classify the various species (and which are cited here) have, in fact, subsequently been changed or modified.

Testudo Tentoria  (plate 14)

Since Bell had not written any explanatory text for the plates not published in the original edition, John Edward Gray (1800-1875) was commissioned to rewrite the introduction, incorporating descriptions of the plates, for this 1872 version of the work. Gray was Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum from 1840-1875 and he is credited with making its zoological collections amongst the best in the world. He was especially interested in tortoises and Bell had cited his 1831 work, Synopsis reptilium, or, short descriptions of the species of reptiles in his introductory summary of previous research. Ironically, however, Bell was not altogether complimentary about Gray's work, criticising it for being hastily written and derivative, going so far as to accuse Gray of plagiarism.

Gray's new introduction is shorter than Bell's original text. He identifies each species, giving brief descriptions of habitat and characteristics. He quotes extensively from Bell - at least, it would seem, acknowledging his source in this instance.

It has to be acknowledged, however, that despite the efforts of Bell and Gray, the main attraction of the book lies in its splendid illustrations rather than the text. These were produced by lithography, a process that was invented by Alois Senefelder in Germany in about 1796. A struggling author, he wished to publish his own work but could not afford the expense of a printing press; he stumbled upon lithography as a new method of reproduction while experimenting with etching using polished stone. It is a planographic process that works upon the basic principle that grease and water repel each other.

Emys Spinosa (young) (plate 27)

In lithography, the design is first drawn upon a suitably porous stone (ideally limestone) with a greasy ink or pencil. The drawing is then fixed with a solution of acid. The whole stone is washed with water - a film of water will lie on the unmarked parts of the stone, but not on the greasy marks of the drawing. The stone is then rolled with a greasy printing ink which is repelled by the water on the unmarked part of the surface but is accepted by the greasy marks. A sheet of printing paper is laid directly on the surface of the stone and run through a press where it takes a reversed impression of the design.

Lithography was well established throughout Europe by the 1820s. Lithographic stones were straightforward to prepare and the process was hugely advantageous in allowing artists to draw free hand directly on to the stone (as opposed to other methods of reproduction such as etching or engraving). However, although large numbers of impressions could easily be run off, it was not generally favoured for book illustration as letterpress printing entailed using a different process. The exception to this was in producing technical or scientific works such as this, where especially fine detail was required.

 Testudo Pardalis (plate 9)

 Testudo Carbonaria (plate 3)

The drawings for the plates were produced by the 'inimitable pencil' of James de Carle Sowerby (1787-1871). Sowerby was from a formidable family of nineteenth century naturalists. He helped to found the Royal Botanic Gardens and, like Bell, was a founder member of the Zoological Society of London. Although a scientist and author in his own right - perhaps most famously contributing to the Sowerby family's epic publication the Mineral Conchology (1812-46) - he worked on many artistic commissions for natural history publications and is probably now best known for his many book illustrations.

Wherever possible, to ensure that their features were accurately drawn, Sowerby's drawings were taken from living creatures as supplied by Bell. Many commentators have praised the work for the lifelike poses of the tortoises and turtles depicted. However, the genius of successfully bringing the reptiles to life in the plates is usually attributed to Edward Lear (1812-1888) who was responsible for making the lithographs from the drawings.

 Testudo Carbonaria (plate 4)

Terrapine Clausa (plate 22: detail)

Terrapine Clausa (plate 22:)

Now chiefly remembered for his nonsense verse, Edward Lear was the most accomplished lithographer of his time. He made a living as an artist and painter and contributed illustrations to many natural history volumes, being particularly renowned for his bird illustrations. Most famously, he had his own work The Family of Psittacidae or Parrots (1830-1832) privately printed before the age of twenty. According to Colley, had he continued to work exclusively as a natural history illustrator he would probably now be 'better known than Audubon'. However, at around the age of 25, he decided to travel and become a landscape painter. It is estimated that by the time he died he had produced over 30,000 sketches and paintings. His natural history work has been acclaimed for its skill and accuracy, his qualities as a draughtsman being particularly highlighted. His bird illustrations are most often singled out for praise, and he is credited with giving his birds a sense of their 'own whimsy and intelligence' (Colley quoting Hyman). Certainly, many of the tortoises and turtles depicted here are imbued with a similar individuality and character.

Testudo Areolata  (plate 21)

The plates were printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel (1789-1850) who is credited with introducing the process of lithography to England. An English landscape painter, he visited Senefelder in Munich and in 1824 published his treatise The art of drawing on stone, giving a full explanation of the various styles, of the different methods to be employed to ensure success, and of the modes of correcting, as well as of the several causes of failure. He went on to refine the process and became a pioneer in chromolithography - that is, printing lithographs in colour.

Testudo Indica (young) (plate 6)

At the time that these plates were produced in the 1830s, the tricky process of colour printing had yet to be resolved and these were therefore finished by hand colouring. This was accomplished by Gabriel Bayfield (1781-1870) and his team. Bayfield was well known as a colourist of natural history works. He was most famously employed by John Gould for his many volumes of bird books, and it is estimated that his firm coloured more than half a million plates for Gould between 1831 and 1861. Hand colouring was especially popular for natural history works as animals and plants could be accurately depicted using an almost limitless palette of colours. The quality of the work is evident today as we examine the detailed and vibrant plates, but this was an expensive and time-consuming process. This is reflected in the prices that hand coloured works commanded: according to the cover of the first part of Bell's monograph, a coloured copy cost 21 shillings, while a plain copy was a relative snip at 16 shillings.
As well as being of interest to the art historian, this book is valuable as a zoological record of the varieties of tortoises and turtles found in the nineteenth century. Having been hunted from ancient times for both food and shells, the existence of many chelonians has long been threatened by man. Bell and Gray recorded the details of many species that are now on the verge of extinction. The accompanying text clearly demonstrates that they were aware of their subjects' vulnerability. In describing the Chelonia Mydas, for example, Gray describes at length their feeding and breeding habits, explaining how they approach land in great numbers to lay eggs, at which time they are particularly exposed to predators; he notes that they are brought to markets in vast numbers 'being held in high estimation as a wholesome and delicious food' and describes how they are caught at night and then turned on their backs to be picked up the next day  - 'nor can they resume their natural position, in consequence of the shortness of their necks and the peculiar arrangement of their fins'; they are also harpooned and netted at the entrances of creeks and rivers and captured with an instrument called a 'peg'; meanwhile, the nests are robbed of eggs by man, raccoons, birds and fishes. The green sea turtle is now an endangered species.

Chelonia Mydas (plate 59)

Emys Ornata (very young)
(plate 44: detail)

Produced at a time of great interest in all aspects of natural history, Tortoises, terrapins and turtles is a considerable scientific achievement. It is also an outstanding example of a beautifully crafted nineteenth century plate book and its exquisite illustrations bring alive to this day these interesting, and often overlooked, reptiles.

The earlier version of this work, the Monograph of the Testudinata, will be on display to delegates of the 2007 British Ecological Society Annual Meeting which takes place this month. The accompanying virtual display, Birds, Blooms and Bees, which highlights some of the other glorious and groundbreaking natural history books in our care, is available to all on our website.

Emys Ornata (very young)

(plate 44: detail)

Thomas Bell A monograph of the testudinata London : Printed for Samuel Highley, [1832-1836] Sp Coll f276

John Edward Gray Synopsis reptillium, or, Short descriptions of the species of reptiles. Part 1: Cataphracta. Tortoises, crocodiles, and enaliosaurians London:1831 Level 5 Main Lib Zoology UY5 1831-G

Charles Joseph Hullmandel The art of drawing on stone, giving a full explanation of the various styles, of the different methods to be employed to ensure success, and of the modes of correcting, as well as of the several causes of failure London: [1824] Sp Coll g.3.23

Thomas Bell A history of British quadrupeds, including the Cetacea  London: 1837 Library Research Annexe HA04609

Thomas Bell A history of British reptiles ... illustrated by more than forty woodcuts London : John Van Voorst, 1839 Library Research Annexe H4-h.2

Thomas Bell A history of the British stalk-eyed crustacea London: 1853 Level 5 Main Lib Zoology EC1 1853-B

British Museum (Natural History). Dept. of Zoology. Catalogue of crustacea [in the British Museum] ... . Part 1, Leucosiadae by Thomas Bell. London: [British Museum], 1855 Level 5 Main Lib Zoology CH14 1853-B

Thomas Bell A monograph of the fossil malacostracous Crustacea of Great Britain London: Palaeontographical Society, 1858-1913 Level 6 Main Lib Geology qUC50 P-1 Vol.B1

James Sowerby The mineral conchology of Great Britain; or coloured figures and descriptions of those remains of testaceous animals or shells, which have been preserved at various times and depths in the earth London : Printed by Benjamin Meredith; and sold by the author, J. Sowerby, White and Co., Sherwood & Co., 1812-1846 [Vols 5-7 continued by James D.C. Sowerby; NB vol. 7 missing in this set] Sp Coll q875-880

John Gould A century of birds from the Himalaya mountains London: 1832 Sp Coll n2-a.6 

John Gould A monograph of the ramphastidae, or family of toucans London: 1834  Sp Coll n2-a.12

John Gould The birds of Europe London: 1837  Sp Coll n1-a.9-11, n2-a.1-2

Thomas Bell A history of British quadrupeds, including the Cetacea  London: 1837 Library Research Annexe Store HA04609

Frederick William Beechey The zoology of Captain Beechey's voyage. London: 1839 Sp Coll q618

John Gould The Birds of Australia London: 1840-1869 Sp Coll n1-a.1-8: see July 2005 book of the month

David Alderton Turtles & tortoises of the world London : Blandford Press, 1993 Level 5 Main Lib Zoology UY5.C5 1993-A

Australian Museum Gabriel Bayfield (1781-1870) - Gould's colourer (page from 2004 online exhibition John Gould Inc.) [ accessed 27 Aug 2007]

R. J. Cleevely, 'Bell, Thomas (1792-1880)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 27 Aug 2007]

R. J. Cleevely, 'Sowerby, James De Carle (1787-1871)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [, accessed 27 Aug 2007]

Ann C. Colley Edward Lear and the critics Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, c1993. Level 9 Main Lib English ML161 COL

Philip Gaskell A new introduction to bibliography Oxford: 1972 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B20 1972-G (particulary for explanation of lithography, pp. 267-269)

Martin Hardie English coloured books Bath: Kingsmead Reprints, 1973 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B79 1906-H

Natural History Museum [Page on more information on Sowerby's tortoise] [accessed 29 June 2007]

Percy H. Muir Victorian illustrated books London: Batsford, 1985, c1971. Edition Rev. impression. Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B79:4 1985

NB. There is a CD version of the Monograph of the testudina available from Octavo editions (not held by Glasgow University Library)



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Julie Gardham September 2007