Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Two wonderful books

As many readers know, I admire the contributions to Natural History made by Philip Henry Gosse and have read facsimiles of many of his books. I have also had the privilege of looking through First Editions held in Libraries and Museums and have seen some of the artwork used for illustrations in both books and lectures [1]. Plates by Gosse impress with their vibrancy and accuracy and they enhance the enthusiastic descriptions of organisms and their environment that he gives in the text. Gosse studied organisms in the field, in his aquarium, and under the microscope, and did much to promote these three approaches in the study of Natural History. One can imagine the impact of his publications in the mid-nineteenth century and it is not surprising that Gould described Gosse as the "David Attenborough of his day". In addition to popularising what was to become a passion for some Victorians, he also made important contributions to science and to scientific debate.

Last week, I received an e-mail from a friend who is reducing the number of books in his library and, knowing of my interest in Gosse, asked if I would like First Editions of A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast and Actinologia Britannica. I was astonished and said "yes" immediately, as these two books contain some of Gosse's best illustrations [2]. They have now arrived and are both in excellent condition, with the plates in their original state (see below).

Why do these books from over 150 years ago so impress me? The answer comes partly from my admiration for Gosse as one of the best observers, and communicators, of Natural History, but I also react against the image of the man portrayed by his son, Edmund, in Father and Son [3], that stresses the rรดle that religion played in his life and which Edmund found stifling. I like to see fair play and, while not disguising my difficulties with Henry's profound Christian beliefs, I think that he deserves to be recognised in a very positive light.

[2] R. B. Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A Bibliography. Folkestone, Wm. Dawson & Sons.

[3] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments. London, Heinemann.

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