Bugs in the basement: University library goes entomological

Posted by mjs76 at Feb 01, 2011 04:25 PM |
Stay out of the David Wilson Library basement if you have a fear of bugs or spiders because the current exhibition down there shows some of the fascinating old books in our special collections which feature creepy crawlies.

The oldest book in the display is A Natural History of Spiders and Other Curious Insects, written and illustrated by Eleazar Albin in 1736. Albin is a mysterious figure in the history of nature books, his origins lost in the mists of time although it is believed he may have been German by birth. His spider book followed works on insects and birds.

Much more is known about Dutch scientist Jan Swammerdam whose The Book of Nature; or, the History of Insects was published in English in 1758.

Plate from Jan Swammerdam's The Book of Nature (1758).

Swammerdam was a medical researcher as well as an entomologist and was the first person to discover that human ovaries contain eggs. When he subsequently found something similar in insects he realised that what had always been called a ‘King Bee’ was actually a Queen.

Naturalists in the 18th century were the first people to really look at bugs in any detail but it fell to their 19th century successors to start cataloguing the things. Increasingly sophisticated printing techniques allowed the widespread use of beautiful colour plates, some of which can be admired in the Library display.

In fact insects were a popular subject for demonstrations of printing techniques as can be seen in several volumes of The Penrose Annual (aka The Process Year Book), an advertising showcase periodical.

Plate from John Blackwall’s A History of the Spiders of Great Britain and Ireland (1861/64).

An idea of how much our knowledge of the invertebrate world has grown in the past century and a half can be gleaned from John Blackwall’s A History of the Spiders of Great Britain and Ireland, published in two volumes by the Ray Society in 1861 and 1864. Blackwall painstakingly described 304 different types of spider found throughout the UK, whereas the British Arachnological Society currently lists nearly 1,300 species (and that’s not including harvestmen, which are arachnids but not spiders, as any fule no).

Alongside the scientific aspects of bug-study, the exhibition also looks at the cultural impact of insects and spiders, especially in children’s literature. There are two illustrated editions of William Roscoe’s classic 1802 poem The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, of which the 1857 volume is illustrated by RM Ballantyne, best known today as author of The Coral Island.

Illustration from Alan Aldridge's The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast (1973).

In contrast with the Victorian edition that sticks to Roscoe’s text is Alan Aldridge’s very successful version, greatly expanding the story (distinguished by the slightly amended title of The Butterfly Ball…). Published in 1973, it was this particular edition which inspired Roger Glover’s classic concept album the following year, an LP which once sat in every student bedroom inbetween Sergeant Pepper and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.

Many of the children’s books in the Library’s Special Collections were donated by Dr Winifred Higson, who worked at the University between 1949 and 1973.

Other volumes on display include Georges Louis Leclerc’s A New System of the Natural History of Fish and Insects (1791), John Curtis’ British Entomology (1862), John Coakley Lettson’s The Naturalist’s and Traveller’s Companion (1799), Jeremiah Joyce’s Dialogues on the Microscope (1812), Richard South’s The Moths of the British Isles (1908) and Charlotte Maria Tucker’s detailed description of invertebrate ecosystems Fairy Frisket, or, Peeps at Insect Life (1875).

The bugs display will be on public view until April. If you would like to view the display but do not have a University Library Card, please ask at Library reception for access to the basement.

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