Each week our Collections Manager Rhian, brings you our ‘Rare Book of the Week’ on our social media accounts. Too good to be lost in the daily deluge of tweets and Instagrams we wanted to bring you a round-up of some of our favourites. This week we’re going aquatic.
Starting with the two youngest, ‘Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles‘ (1872) is one of the best collections of illustrations of these creatures ever produced. From the incredibly lifelike drawings by James de Carle Sowerby, lithographs were then produced by Edward Lear. This book is not only an object of great beauty, it is also an important zoological record. It shows the varieties of tortoises and turtles found in the 19th century, many of which are now at risk of extinction.
‘A history of the British Sea Anemones and Corals’ (1860) by Philip Gosse, shows us some beautiful examples from our coast lines. Gosse created the first public aquarium at the London Zoo and coined the term ‘aquarium’ in his book on the subject. To his horror his manual ‘The Aquarium’ (1854) was partly responsible for the aquarium craze in Victoria England which saw many anemones taken from the wild.
The book, ‘Tenby: A Seaside Holiday’ (1856) saw Gosse turn his family holiday to much loved Welsh seaside town Tenby, into research for a new natural history book. Discoveries from the shoreline include these striking, sometimes microscopic, images of the creatures he found.
Gosse struggled to reconcile his religious beliefs with the mysteries of the natural world. His book ‘Omphalos’ explored whether Adam had a belly button and other biblical questions that puzzled him. His theory that God planted fossils to trick humanity was unpopular with both scientists and Christians. He remains best known for his pioneering work on marine zoology as a populiser of natural history.
Our next rare book to include aquatic beings is the ‘A description of more than three hundred animals’ (1812) from publisher Thomas Boreman. Containing many different types of animals, insects and fish, this book lists real creatures alongside mythological ones. Like medieval bestiaries these books often didn’t distinguish between the ordinary and the fantastical, so alongside the walrus and shark, you’ll find the mermaid and siren. American Entomologist Harry B. Weiss clearly does not believe that Boreman based these entries on reputable sources. Going so far as to write
“If Thomas Boreman had anything to do with these books, he was, in all probability a compiler, one without much discrimination, because he put together observations, mistakes, worthless descriptions, etc., of naturalists, travelers, etc., as recorded in previous works. If anything good is included, it probably slipped in by mistake, and no because of the compiler’s nice perception. Boreman was interested in Sales.” 
Keeper of Natural history in the British Museum, George Shaw’s ‘The Naturalist’s Miscellany’ contained the first ever published illustration of a platypus in the 1799 edition. As the author of the book he is given credit for the first description of the animal, however credit for the illustration lies with Frederick and Elizabeth Nodder and their son Richard, a 19th Century illustrating and publishing family.
“Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped.” – Shaw
If you’ve enjoyed reading about these rare illustrated beauties then there is more in our posts about the History of Book Illustrations.
Rhian features a new Rare Book each week on the Leeds Libraries social media pages, check out your favourite platform and follow Leeds Libraries for weekly updates.
- Weiss, Harry B. “The Entomology of Thomas Boreman’s Popular Natural Histories” Journal of the New York Entomology Society, 47.3. (1939) p.216.