Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Angels, Billy Graham and me

Like many teenagers, I went through phases of questioning my religious beliefs. Brought up as Christian, I attended the local Baptist Church with the rest of my extended family, but left when I found myself doubting some of the things that I heard and some of the behaviour that I saw. After leaving the congregation of the Baptist Church, I attended a Crusaders group and occasional meetings organised in a local theatre that were modelled on the large-scale rallies held by Billy Graham and other famous evangelists. These meetings encouraged me in my developing agnosticism, as the atmosphere was oppressively emotional and the message was all about being saved from something dreadful.

Having left Christian religious beliefs, I became opposed to those who wanted to talk to me about such matters. On one occasion, when I was away at University, a member of the Christian Union knocked on my door. I welcomed him into my room and was happy to chat about things in general, but not when he started to proselytise. That was a challenge that I couldn't resist, so I fired back with an attack on everything that he was saying to me. It is something that I now feel rather bad about but, at the time, I was pleased to be told that I was the nearest that my visitor had come to the Devil. His reaction reminded me of the warnings I had heard in the preaching of the evangelists.

Recently, I read Billy Graham's book about angels [1] and took a special interest as I have written about angels with bird wings [2,3], so familiar to us in paintings and sculptures. There is no evidence in The Holy Bible to support these images and Billy Graham confirms this (see below, upper); yet his book has a bird-winged angel on the cover (see below, lower). 

The book is an interesting read as it gives an insight into what angels mean to an evangelical Christian like Billy Graham. Here is a very small selection of quotes:

..angels are created spirit beings who can become visible when necessary. They can appear and disappear. They think, feel, will and display emotions.. ..the Bible teaches about them as oracles of God, who give divine or authoritative decisions and bring messages from God to men. To fulfill this function angels have not infrequently assumed visible human form..

..We must be aware that angels keep in close and vital contact with all that is happening on the earth. Their knowledge of earthly matters exceeds that of men. We must attest to their invisible presence and unceasing labors. Let us believe that they are here among us. They may not laugh or cry with us, but we do know they delight with us over every victory in our evangelistic endeavors.

The Bible seems to indicate that angels do not age, and never says that one was sick.. ..The holy angels will never die. some cases in the Old Testament God Himself appeared in human form as an angel.

The Bible.. ..teaches that angels are sexless.

The number of angels remains constant. For the obedient angels do not die. The fallen angels will suffer the final judgement at the time God finishes dealing with them. While we cannot be certain, some scholars estimate that as many as one third of the angels cast their lot with Satan when he mysteriously rebelled against his Creator.

Nothing in Scripture says that angels must eat to stay alive. But the Bible says that on certain occasions angels in human form did indeed eat.

While it is partly speculative, I believe that angels have the capacity to employ heavenly celestial music.. .. I think before we can understand the music of heaven we will have to go beyond our earthly concept of music. I think most earthly music will seem to us to have been in the "minor key" in comparison to what we are going to hear in heaven.

You must read the whole book to gain more information and also to experience the tone that is used. It is similar to the emotive language of a Billy Graham rally and, as we see from the quotation above, is "partly speculative". One of the most important statements in the book is this:

Satan often works by interjecting a question to raise doubts. It is deadly to doubt God's Word!

I take this to mean that we shouldn't question and that is difficult for me as my training as a scientist has questioning at its heart. In reading Billy Graham's book, I was reminded repeatedly about his constant concern about Satan's influence in the World and of our need to be saved. It took me back to my experience as an undergraduate student. 

By the way, I don't believe that angels exist. That does not mean that I disrespect those that do believe in angels; rather I regard it as being a matter of personal choice. Sorry, Billy.

[1] Billy Graham (1975) Angels: God's Secret Agents. London, Hodder & Stoughton.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Wonderful first-hand observations of shore life

We can all learn from the observational skills and industry of Nineteenth Century Natural Historians. Equipped with hand lenses, microscopes, pens, pencils, paper and paints, they recorded what they saw and this formed the basis of the classification of organisms and the ecology and behaviour that was to follow. I hold them in very high regard, especially when it is now so easy to record an image, or access information. Yet I wonder whether we have lost some of the skills shown during the heyday of Natural History? Much of our information now comes from television and video programmes that have excitement engendered by Hollywood-style production values, "appropriate" music, and a charismatic presenter to front the whole package. We are just passengers, often receiving what we are told uncritically.

The enthusiasm, powers of observation, and skill in illustration of Nineteenth Century Natural Historians are exemplified by William Pennington Cocks (1791-1878), whose work is included in the Haddon Collection in the Horniman Museum [1]. Although Cocks was interested in a wide range of animals, the Collection contains the notes he made on sea anemones that were used by Philip Henry Gosse in the preparation of Actinologia Britannica, his book on the British sea anemones and corals. Here are some examples of the notes that he sent to Gosse:


In the first (above, upper), we have a water colour sketch of sea anemones attached to the under-surface of a rock. This gives little detail of the animals, although Cocks provides the name of the species in the heading, but we certainly have a feel for their location. Next (above, lower), there are several species of sea anemones, all painted in colour and with detail of their structure and their positioning. Several locations are given, including Gwyllyn Vase, a favourite site of Cocks on the shore near Falmouth and now known as Gyllyngvase. He also placed sea anemones into jars, or tumblers, of sea water to facilitate observation (below, excuse my thumb in the first picture) and the drawings show details of structure that would be very helpful to others working on the biology and classification of these animals. 


Cocks recognised the value of the microscope and this is emphasised in a note (below): "If you have not examined the tentacula microscopically I would recommend a campaign in that quarter – we know little or nothing of the anatomy of the actinias".

His study of the biology of sea anemones included their feeding and three examples are given below, complete with the examination of two fish that had been partially digested. The lowest illustration shows a sea anemone with stinging acontia discharged [2] – "the appearance of one of these irritable fellows a few moments after removal from natural quarters".


Cocks' interest in anatomy and diet is not surprising as he was trained as a surgeon and became well known in London for his medical illustrations. He had a gift for drawing and for painting in water colours, although he appears to have received no formal training (unlike Gosse, whose father was a miniaturist). This is what Tom Barnicoat writes in an article entitled "The Gilbert White of Falmouth" [3]:

Born in 1791, the son of a Devon surgeon, Cocks took up his father's profession in London before retiring to Falmouth in 1842 at the age of 50. This was apparently due to recurring bouts of unspecified ill-health which continued for the rest of his life. Cocks' constitution must have had an underlying strength, given his active life and longevity: for the next 36 years, he was not only a prolific naturalist, but also keenly engaged in local politics, for the Liberal cause. His main contribution was a stream of lively cartoons and caricatures. Cocks was also an acute social observer, in his writing and drawings of contemporary mores..

..That he was a man of his time is clear, a certain type of Victorian professional with sufficient leisure (and thus means) to pursue a wide range of interests in that age of curiosity and discovery. From all the published sources, it would seem he was also an inveterate bachelor, there is no mention of family life anywhere.

F. Hamilton Davey in his appreciation of Cocks in 1909 adds [4]:

While Cocks will always be spoken of as a distinguished local naturalist, no reference to his life's work can be deemed complete which omits mention of his achievements in departments other than those connected with natural science..

..Everyone who knew Cocks speaks of him as a most genial companion and a man who never, even in his old years, lost touch with young men. To spend an evening with him, or to accompany him on one of his natural history rambles, was an event long to be remembered. He had a fine sense of humour, was a brilliant conversationalist, and his memory was as reliable as a written diary.

Clearly, Cocks was of a quite different personality to Gosse, who was shy and dedicated to his literalist Biblical beliefs. We know of the importance of Gosse to the increasing popularity of marine science, parlour aquaria and microscopy in the Nineteenth Century, as Edmund Gosse wrote two biographies of his father, including the well-known Father and Son. Few are familiar with Cocks, yet we know that he corresponded with Gosse and others about sea anemones and his correspondence was valued, which is why the notes by Cocks were retained and then gathered into the Haddon Collection. Stella M. Turk wrote in 1971 [5]:

If like Proust we think of our personal pasts as stilts on which we must balance, then we must also believe that science itself rests on its past – often precariously. The ability to manoeuvre such stilts is related to an understanding of their origins. Our present highly specialised, statistically-based professional attitudes in biology could not have come about had it not been for the few highly articulate, industrious and many-sided amateurs who helped to lay the foundations of modern natural history studies in the last century. Dr. W. P. Cocks, still alive less than a century ago, and in his working life a valued correspondent of such outstanding authorities as Milne Edwards, Yarrell, Gosse, Couch, Johnston and Ralfs.. ..was just such a naturalist.

Food for thought for those of us who continue to believe in the importance of the study of Natural History. Viewing the Haddon Collection was an exciting adventure for me, as I greatly admire the Natural Historians of the Nineteenth Century, their powers of observation and their means of communicating what they saw. Would Cocks have been surprised to know that someone was admiring his field notes in a Museum, more than 150 years after they were written?

[3] Tom Barnicoat (2008/2009) The Gilbert White of Falmouth. Thepolymagazine  pages 11-13.

[4] F. Hamilton Davey (1909) William Pennington Cocks, M.R.C.S. Reports of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society 76: 82-91.

[5] Stella M. Turk (1971) Wiliam Pennington Cocks (1791-1878), a West Country naturalist. Journal of Conchology 27: 253-255.

I would like to thank the Horniman Museum for allowing me to view the Haddon Collection and to reproduce the illustrations in this post. Michael Carver, Judith Hann and the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society provided valuable insights into the work of W. P. Cocks and it is a pleasure to acknowledge their help, together with that of Anna Holmes and Graham Oliver of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

A mystery at the Horniman Museum

Everyone likes a mystery and this is one that I discovered recently. While looking through the Haddon Collection at the Horniman Museum [1], I came across a card with a drawing of a sea anemone (see below left). Earlier in the Collection, I had been looking at the original paintings by Philip Henry Gosse for Plate V of his book Actinologia Britannica, a comprehensive guide to sea anemones and corals found around the British coast. Close examination of the sea anemone illustrated on the card, especially its shape, colour and arrangement of the tentacles, made me think that this must be the basis for the watercolour that was used for the Plate (below right).

Let's get some more information on the card (shown below in more detail). The drawing has been overwritten by the address and also the term "Picture", both written in ink and apparently in the same handwriting. There is also writing in pencil: "Aiptasia amacha" at the top; "See Pl. V" at bottom right; "44" at top right; and at bottom left "tentacles light umber with pellucid dark centres. Column pale ochre". The card has three postmarks: one for North Queensferry (May 2nd); one indecipherable (May 3rd?); and one for Torquay (May 4th).

L. J. P. Gaskin (the Librarian of the Horniman Museum in the 1930s) identifies the descriptive pencil writing at the bottom left as that of Gosse and states that the drawing provides "A further link with the Actinologia" and was "probably the original of the figure [of Aiptasia couchii] in Plate 5 of that work" [2]. The pencil marking to this effect on the card (presumably added by Haddon, together with the catalogue number 44) also supports this idea, yet the drawing is labelled "Aiptasia amacha"

This is what Gosse wrote about the material he used to illustrate A. couchii in Actinologia Britannica [3]:

..In the latter part of March of the present year (1858), Dr Hilton of Guernsey found on the shores of that island, and kindly sent to me, several specimens of an Anemone new  to him, and equally so to me.. ..I.. ..ventured to describe it under the name Aiptasia amacha..

..Subsequently, however, I have found that the species has been well described and figured by Mr. W. P. Cocks, in his valuable list of the Actiniæ of Falmouth, published in the Report of the Cornwall Society for 1851, under the title of Anthea Couchii, which specific name takes precedence of mine. It is true, in his description, mention is made of three white lines extending longitudinally up the column, of which no trace exists in my specimens; but by a coloured drawing with which Mr. Cocks has favoured me, I perceive that these lines were not equidistant and symmetrical, but all close together on one side; a circumstance which at once shows their presence to have been accidental, and of no value as a character, while in every other respect, even in the most minute points, his drawing and description agree with my specimens.

As the drawing on the card is labelled "Aiptasia amacha", and does not show evidence of any longitudinal lines on the column, it seems that this is indeed by Gosse and that explains its near identical appearance with the specimen shown in Plate V in Actinologia Britannica.  So, why is the drawing overwritten with the address and the word "Picture"and who wrote the card? I cannot answer the first part of that question, nor the second. My first thought was that Cocks had sent the card, but the handwriting is rather different to many other examples of his (Michael Carver in pers. comm.) and this was probably not Cocks' drawing anyway. If we follow the sequence of postmarks, the card was sent from North Queensferry (the only place of this name being on the Firth of Forth, way outside the known range of A. couchii [3]) via a second destination and then sent on from Torquay to Gosse at Sandhurst, the villa where he lived in St Marychurch, a village within that town. 

A mystery indeed.

[2] L. J. P. Gaskin (1937) On a collection of original sketches and drawings of British sea-anemones and corals by Philip Henry Gosse, and his correspondents, 1839-1861, in the Library of the Horniman Museum. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History 1: 65-67

[3] Philip Henry Gosse (1860). Actinologia Britannica. A history of the British sea-anemones and corals. London, John Van Voorst.

I would like to thank the Horniman Museum for allowing me to view the Haddon Collection and to reproduce the illustrations in this post. Michael Carver, Judith Hann and the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society provided valuable insights into the work of W. P. Cocks and it is a pleasure to acknowledge their help.