Monday, 30 October 2017

A Naturalist during the First World War

E Ray Lankester (shown above in an image from the Grant Museum of Zoology) wrote regular pieces on Biology and Natural History in the Daily Telegraph and these were collected into three volumes, the third of which is entitled Diversions of a Naturalist, Lankester liking the title Naturalist to describe his interests [1]. The Preface of this third collection was written in June 1915 and begins [2]:

At this time of stress and anxiety we all, however steadfast in giving our service to the great task in which our country is engaged, must, from time to time, seek intervals of release from the torrent of thoughts which is set going by the tremendous fact that we are fighting for our existence. To very many relief comes in splendid self-sacrificing action, in the joyful exercise of youthful strength and vigour for a noble cause. But even these, as well as those who are less fortunate, need intervals of diversion – brief change of thought and mental occupation – after which they may return to their great duties rested and refreshed.

I know that there are many who find a never-failing source of happiness in acquaintance with things belonging to that vast area of Nature which is beyond and apart from human misery, an area unseen and unsuspected by most of us and yet teeming with things of exquisite beauty; an area capable of yielding to man knowledge of inestimable value. Many are apt to think that the value of “Science” is to be measured mainly, if not exclusively, by the actual power which it has conferred on man – mechanical and electrical devices, explosives, life-saving control over disease. They would say of Science, as the ignoble proverb tells us of Honesty, that it is “the best policy.” But Honesty is far more than that, and so is Science. Science has revealed to man his own origin and history, and his place in this world of un-ending marvels and beauty. It has given him a new and unassailable outlook on all things both great and small. Science commends itself to us as does Honesty and as does great Art and all fine thought and deed – not as a policy yielding material profits, but because it satisfies man’s soul.

I offer these chapters to the reader as possible affording to him, as their revision has to me, a welcome escape, when health demands it, from the immense and inexorable obsession of warfare..

When Lankester wrote this Preface, the second Battle of Ypres had already begun - with the first use of poison gas - and even worse was to follow with the Battle of the Somme one year later. As Sargent's emotive painting of casualties of battle reminds us (above, upper [3]), it is doubtful that soldiers who fought in the trenches (above, lower [3]), thought too much about the wonders of the natural world. There is such a contrast between the "joyful exercise of youthful strength and vigour for a noble cause" and the dreadful reality of warfare. Lankester must have written that for patriotic reasons as, in a letter to H. G. Wells dated 29th June 1915 (just after he had written the Preface), he wrote this of his attitude to the War [1]: "[It] is too much for me. It has laid me flat. I am too old for it. I shall never recover."

People of many nations lost relatives in the First World War - sons, grandsons, brothers, husbands - and the ever-present anxiety of those at home needed relief. Lankester’s thoughts in the Preface must have been intended for this audience and many readers would appreciate that there is a wider realm than that just of humans, although human influence dominates everything. Nature can indeed be comforting.

While growing up, I had to cope with both the death of my mother (when I was 13) and father (when I was 21). Their funerals were both held at the local Baptist Church, followed by cremation, but I had already left organised religion and had no wish to attend either the church services or the delivery to the crematorium. Perhaps that was selfish, or a bad idea for me in coming to terms with the loss? It didn’t feel like that at the time as, on both occasions, I went for a walk in the Devonshire countryside before returning to join family and friends who had attended the funerals. There was something about the connection to the continuity of life that was all around me that appealed to my adolescent self and it made the immediate bereavement just a little easier to deal with.

A final point comes with Lankester’s statement that: “Science commends itself to us as does Honesty and as does great Art and all fine thought and deed – not as a policy yielding material profits, but because it satisfies man’s soul.” Too often we regard the natural world as something that we can exploit for human gain yet, with consideration and control, it is vital that we do exploit it. However, we also have a responsibility to maintain the quality of the environment and this would be easier if more of us had a sense of wonder about all that we see around us. I don’t mean that we should just receive information from polished Natural History programmes and documentaries, but have more of the “what’s that?” or “look at that” feeling that walks in nature provide – with no presenter, background music, tricks or high production values – yet an abundance of things to see, smell, hear and, occasionally, taste. And then there’s the additional pleasure of gentle physical exercise in the open air...

[1] Joe Lester (edited by Peter J. Bowler) (1995) E. Ray Lankester and the making of modern British Biology. British Society for the History of Science Monograph 9.

[2] Ray Lankester (1915) Diversions of a Naturalist. London, Methuen & Co.

[3] These illustrations are from the Imperial War Museum Collection

Monday, 16 October 2017

Anne Pratt – a woman of the seashore

In her book Kindred Nature, Barbara Gates discusses the part that women played in the Victorian passion for Natural History. Seashore plants and animals were found especially fascinating, as marine coasts were previously under-explored, and among the women who wrote guides was Anne Pratt. She is now almost forgotten, yet Barbara Gates writes [1]:

When George Eliot and George Henry Lewes arrived in Ilfracombe in 1856, awkward and ill-equipped novices in seashore life but ready to learn enough for Lewes to be able to write Sea-side Studies in 1858, they would have been as likely to be carrying Anne Pratt's Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side (1850) as they would Philip Gosse's Aquarium (1854) or Kingsley's Glaucus.

Having posted previously on Lewes, Gosse and Kingsley [2], I wanted to explore Anne Pratt's book and imagine the impression that it made on its readers.

As might be expected in a book written by a specialist on land plants, Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side [3] begins with seaside plants and seaweeds, going on to describe animals of various types; the text being accompanied by Anne Pratt’s own illustrations (see below for an example). She enthuses about what we might find and encourages close observation, including, where necessary, taking specimens to small tanks of sea-water to get a better view of their form and function. A good example of the style and approach of her book can be found in her descriptions of zoophytes (i.e. animals that resemble plants):

Perhaps the zoophytes best known as such to visitors at the coast, are the beautiful Sea Anemones, which offer their loveliness to every eye, and need no microscope to reveal their tints or forms. Clustered by thousands on sea-side rocks or sands, adorning the sides of rocky pools, with flowers which resemble marigolds or China-asters in their form, but which are brighter in their colours than any flowers which our garden can show; redder than roses, of richer purple than the violet, and wearing the rainbow hues of the gorgeous cactus flower, which the painter in vain essays to copy, there are few objects in nature more calculated to attract our notice that are these living flowers..

..To look down upon these flowers, one would deem them the most helpless of living creatures. The water, with its myriads of tiny insects, seems to afford their proper nutriment, and none would guess, to glance at them, that they could possibly kill, and swallow crabs and shell-fish larger than themselves. But the great Creator, when he made them, furnished them all, helpless as they seem, with the means of securing their appropriate nutriment. They possess a poisonous secretion which soon extinguishes life in the animal which comes near them..

Reading these passages today, we recoil at some of the descriptions (of “flowers” and “insects”, for example, although we know what she meant) and many would dislike the creationist stance that was not surprising in a book published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. However, her readers in the mid-Nineteenth Century would certainly have been encouraged to visit the shore and find some of the plants and animals that she describes. Indeed, her work in Natural History was recognised by the award of a grant from the Civil List, a reflection of her popularity with the public.

In the Introduction of their excellent bibliography of Philip Henry Gosse, Freeman and Wertheimer (1980) put Pratt’s book into the context of the developing science of Marine Biology that made such advances in the Nineteenth Century. They place Gosse’s work in comparison to what has gone before [4]:

His seashore studies.. ..marked an advance over previous books. Many of these, such as Mary Roberts’ Sea-side companion (1835), Elizabeth Allom’s Sea-side pleasures (1845), Anne Pratt’s Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side (1850), and more importantly W. H. Harvey’s Sea-side book (1849), were successful enough, but as works of art, literature and science, bore feeble comparison to Gosse’s volumes.. ..Gosse’s lively and enthusiastic style was firmly based upon something which very few of the previous authors had attempted – original scientific investigation – and this makes them valuable for the present-day naturalist.

No wonder that Charles Kingsley was so impressed that he produced Glaucus as a paean of praise for Gosse and his early books. Gosse wrote for both the popular and the scientific audience and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his discoveries.

Does that mean we should dismiss Anne Pratt’s book about the shore in the way that Freeman and Wertheimer have done? Decidedly not, for she, together with the other women authors they mention, encouraged many who may otherwise not have become inspired by the study of the shore and among their numbers must have been many women, to whom Pratt, Roberts and Allom showed the way.

I would like to end with two further quotes about Anne Pratt, the first from the doverhistorian website and the second from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

..although she brought the interest of botany to the masses, she never received academic acclaim – she was self-taught and a woman. Indeed, fifty years after her death her work was trivialised by the art historian Wilfred Blunt. [5]

Anne Pratt’s works were written in popular style but were said to be accurate. [6]

Being self-taught was viewed as a handicap in some circles and may explain the patronising comment about accuracy in the second quote above. Perhaps of greater significance was that Anne Pratt was a woman and a populariser, rather than a member of the developing scientific establishment that was completely dominated by men. Does that explain the condescension towards her?

[1] Barbara T Gates (1998) Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World. Chicago, Chicago University Press.

[2] [several posts].

[3] Anne Pratt (1850) Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side. London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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

[6] B. B. Woodward (2004-16) Pratt, Anne (1806-1893), rev. Giles Hudson. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The “odd” illustrations by Mark Catesby

I’m amazed by the industry of the Natural Historians of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Without the aid of any of the rapid and accurate illustrative techniques with which we are familiar today, they had either to describe their findings in prose, or use a combination of written description and illustration by herbarium specimens, by nature printing, or by paintings and drawings. Of the Natural Historians using paintings as illustrations, one of the best known was Mark Catesby (1683-1749), an Englishman who travelled to Virginia in 1712 to visit his aunt [1]. He spent his time in the Carolinas before returning to England with his herbarium collections and these were much admired by members of the scientific establishment. Catesby returned to the Carolinas and southern North America in 1722 to collect more material, also visiting the Bahamas in 1725 [1] and his observations and collections formed the basis of two volumes of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands [2,3] that were self-published. It is from these two volumes that we have the illustrations that I describe in this post.

Some of his illustrations seem odd to the contemporary viewer and I am grateful to Alex Seltzer for sending me a copy of his detailed, and scholarly, essay [2] that describes attitudes to Natural History that were prevalent when Catesby was active. I cannot paraphrase Seltzer’s developed thesis in a blog post, but would like to quote some passages:

The answer .. for these so-called aberrations is that modern viewers must first consider the underlying social function of natural history in the early 18th-century. What else, one may well wonder, would an illustrated natural history be for if not to represent plants and animals accompanied by their physical descriptions in an adjoining text? But framing Catesby’s imagery strictly in terms of literal visual description entirely elides an important aspect of early 18th century natural history: the ‘book of nature’ – living proof, as Catesby put it, ‘of the Glorious Works of the Creator’.. ..By looking at Catesby’s odd couplings in the light of contemporary theological attitudes towards nature, many of these irrational combinations start to make metaphorical sense, imparting an unsuspected (or unarticulated) layer of meaning to his work. The seemingly incoherent illustrations in his Natural History offer an alternative reading of nature according to the prevailing attitudes known as ‘physico-theology..

Physico-theology promoted ‘argument from design’: the notion that the natural world was far too complex to have occurred by mere chance and therefore could only have been the result of a divine Intelligent Designer.

It is against this background that we must look at Catesby’s illustrations and, especially, some of the odd associations that he appears to suggest. Let’s look at some of them, with notes appended, including comments by Catesby:

A hummingbird with wings like “the blade of a Turkish Cymiter [scimitar].. ..receives its Food from Flowers, after the Manner of Bees.” [3] The plant is the trumpet flower (Bignonia) – “Humming Birds delight to feed on these Flowers” and the nectar they contain [2].

A fox-coloured thrush “called in Virginia the French Mockbird” [3] is feeding on a clustered black cherry (Cerafi), the fruits of which “are much coveted by Birds, particularly of the Thrush-kind.” [3]

A green turtle (described by Catesby as being prized for their value as food for humans) is swimming against a background of a rooted plant that “grows in shallow Water; several grassy narrow Blades shoot from a stringy fibrose Socket, which arises from the Root, fixed at the Bottom of the Sea.” [4] As Catesby points out, these seagrasses (terrestrial flowering plants that have invaded shallow marine habitats) are often referred to as “turtle grasses” [4].

It is easy to see the association between the pairs of organisms and, allowing for some inaccuracies of scale, this is a form of illustration that we would find logical and easily understandable today. The next three illustrations are less straightforward and may contain elements of physico-theology:

A flamingo is shown against an unidentified plant [?] that Catesby describes as Keratophyton Dichotomum fuscum that is much-branched. He writes “They are in great Plenty at the Bottom of the shallow Seas and Channels of the Bahama Islands, the Water there being exceeding clear.” [3] We know that flamingos feed by sieving suspended organisms and particles from the water column, so this is clearly not a food plant. Why the association? Is it to make us think about two elongated forms that inhabit shallow water?

A green spotted snake climbs through Apocynum Scandens that “trails upon, and is supported by Trees and Shrubs to the Height of ten, and sometimes twenty Feet..” [4] Catesby is thus drawing parallels between the creeping habit of both the snake and the plant, each needing a support. 

A bone-fish is seen against a sea-feather (Corallina), described by Catesby [4] as having “..Stalks of an Horny transparent Substance of a light brown Colour.” The association of the fish and the alga is likely to occur in nature, but Catesby may also be drawing our attention to the spikiness of the plant and the spines along the dorsal fin of the fish.

The final examples of Catesby’s pairings in illustrations provide us with more of a challenge.

A fieldfare is shown against a background of the Snake-Root of Virginia (Aristolochia) that flowers “close to the ground” [3]. The roots of the plant are used as a herbal cure for snakebite, amongst other things, and perhaps that is why we are shown the fieldfare apparently dead? However, the seeds do not have the same properties and the fieldfare would be unlikely to eat the root.

A pilchard is shown in front of a shrub, with a fruit “somewhat in the Shape of a Kidney” [4] and leaves like those of the black poplar. Although Catesby remarks that these plants are found near the sea, what can be the association with pilchards - fish that from large shoals while feeding on plankton?

A globe fish, known to inflate its stomach with water (or air, if caught out of water)  is shown against two plants: a type of dogwood with small white flowers and berries and a creeper that is “supported by Trees” and has pods that contain “usually seven or eight small round brown Pease.” [4] What is the association between the three, bearing in mind that Catesby’s illustrations of fish do not usually have an accompanying plant?

Catesby provides us with examples that make us think about solutions in the “design” of plants and animals that are similar, but what of the fieldfare or the globefish? Would an eighteenth-century reader easily make the connection or were they, like us, left in a state of puzzlement by some of the illustrations?

[1] F. Nigel Hepper (2004-16) Catesby, Mark (1683-1749), naturalist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] Alex Seltzer (2015/6) Catesby’s conundrums: mixing representation with metaphor. The British Art Journal 16: 82-92.

[3] Mark Catesby (1731) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Volume I. London, Self-published.

[4] Mark Catesby (1743) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Volume II. London, Self-published.

This blog post was inspired by Alex Seltzer’s essay in The British Art Journal and readers are recommended to get a copy of that paper to allow a much more developed understanding of the oddness of Catesby’ illustrations.

For a populist view of Mark Catesby see: