The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science founded in 1660, has delved deep into its image archives to find its own gifts for the Twelve Days of Christmas.
From puddingstones to partridge eggs and elephants to the Portuguese man o’ war, they have searched out some of their most beautiful historical images for its own take on the popular Christmas carol.
Here they are:
And a kitten on a monkey’s knee – An eighteenth-century version of ‘pets are for life, not just for Christmas’, from the naturalist George Edwards (1694-1773) artist and authority on ornithology. “This Monkey was about the size of a large Cat, of a gentle nature in respect of hurting anyone. He loved playing with a Kitten, as most Monkies do…The Cat is added only to decorate the figure… I am informed he is a native of Guiney, on the coast of Africa. He was a very active, lively, diverting good-natured animal: but I was obliged to part with him for want of convenient room…I presented him to a right honourable Lord in Essex, who had a convenient menagery…” From the book Gleanings of natural history, exhibiting figures of quadrupeds, birds, insects, plants, by George Edwards, volume 3 (London, for the author, 1764).
Two puddingstones – Not the kind of plum pudding you’d like for Christmas, but the resemblance is remarkable, hence the name of this naturally occurring Hertfordshire conglomerate rock. Puddingstone has been used variously as a decorative building material while its hardness led the Romans to use it for grinding cereals. A plate from the book British mineralogy: or coloured figures intended to elucidate the mineralogy of Great Britain, by James Sowerby (London, 1804). James Sowerby (1757-1822) was a leading artist and one of the busiest naturalists and collectors in the era of Sir Joseph Banks.
Three Inuit – Husband and wife Tiagashu and Adlurak (centre and right) are shown with the sixteen year-old Kawalua in a group portrait by Captain Ross. One of a series of studies published in a “Sketch of the Esquimaux found in…Boothia Felix”, an appendix to the Narrative of a second voyage in search of a North-West Passage by Sir John Ross and Captain James Clarke Ross (London, 1835). Boothia’s Peninsula (named after the expedition backer and gin-magnate Sir Felix Booth) is in the Canadian Arctic and where Ross’s ship Victory was ice-bound over four winters – plenty of time to get to know the locals.
Four swan bills – The ownership of swans was traditionally marked on the bills of these regal birds. This manuscript from the 1570s is a register of swan marks, kept by the Queen’s swan-herd in Lincolnshire, probably a member of the Towneley family. Internal evidence provided by the name of John Whitgift (c.1530-1577) Dean of Lincoln and later Archbishop of Canterbury dates the book as being from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The ceremony of ‘swan-upping’ still takes place annually on the River Thames when a census of swans is taken and unmarked mute swans are claimed and ringed for the Crown.
Five pink rings – Jennifer McRae’s monumental 2008 portrait of the computer scientist and World Wide Web visionary Sir Tim Berners-Lee (b.1955) is surrounded by a version of his mind-map of the web. This nimbus from the information age is a playful framing device, nodding to the gilded frames of Royal Society’s earlier portraits. Today, Berners-Lee is a Professor at MIT and is Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guiding the future development of the web.
Six torpedoes swimming – Representations of the Common torpedo (Torpedo torpedo) and the Marbled electric ray (Torpedo marmorata) from classical sources, drawn or painted on amphorae, a pinax (votive tablet) and a patera (libation bowl). The shock of these marine creatures was used in classical medicine and later exerted a strong fascination for scientists grappling with the nature of electricity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. John Walsh, (1726-1795) and Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) were among many who examined these creatures. Plate from the monograph Die Gattung Torpedo in ihren naturhistorischen antiquarischen Beziehungen [The natural history and antiquarian relations of the genus Torpedo], by J.F.M. von Olfers (Berlin, 1831).
Seven men collecting – Only two of the seven in this geological party are known with certainty: the Italian artist who produced the watercolour, Francesco Progenie, shows himself in the foreground. His patron, wearing a red ribbon, is the pioneering volcanologist Sir William Hamilton (1731-1803) who led this civilized expedition to study the geology of the island of Ponza in the Tyrrenian Sea, Italy in 1785. Hamilton was a leading scientist and collector of antiquities but is most remembered for his role as the third party in the famous love affair between his wife Emma Hamilton and the naval hero Lord Nelson.
Eight beasts in battle – This highly improbable rumble in the jungle shows a
fantastical scene of forest combat between a rhinoceros and an elephant. Four stages of the contest are shown in the foreground and graduated distances: while elsewhere a human bowman hides in a tree, hunting. A woodcut from Discours d’Ambroise Pare (Paris, 1582) and typical of pre-science era travellers’ tales. And the winner is: “the Rhinoceros… enemy of the Elephant, sharpens his horn against a rock, and valiantly goes into battle against him…killing the Elephant…”
Nine firemen leaping – One of the most intriguing travel writers of the 19th century was the former Royal Navy lieutenant James Holman FRS (1786-1857). Holman was invalided from the service in his twenties, becoming completely blind, but he refused a quiet retirement in Windsor in favour of restless journeying. Holman would eventually circumnavigate the world, writing popular books about his experiences, becoming known as The Blind Traveller. In this illustration drawn by a friend in 1825, he recounts the hair-raising training methods of St Petersburg fire-fighters, undertaken “in order to make the firemen more expert in their assistance to the unfortunate inmates of the burning house”.
Ten spiders hunting – The botanist Richard Bradley (1688-1732) was elected to the Royal Society in 1712, producing among other books A philosophical account of the works of nature (London 1721). This print shows nine specimens of common English spiders with one interloper – a poisonous Spanish tarantula, taken from the Royal Society’s own museum collection. The etcher, Thomas Cole, presents them as a trompe l’oeil on an eye-deceiving pinned sheet of paper.
Eleven eggs a-laying – A partridge’s nest, presumably the grey partridge Perdix perdix showing grasses incorporated into its construction and a clutch of eleven eggs. A plate from the beautiful large format book Sammlung von Nestern und Eyern verschiedener Vogel…by Adam Ludwig Wirsing and Friedrich Christian Gunther (A L Wirsing, Nuremburg, 1772). Adam Ludwig Wirsing (1734-1797) moved to Nüremberg to practice his art in 1760 at a time when the city was home to many fine natural history painters including Barbara Regina Dietzsch (1706-1783). Like Dietzsch, Wirsing produced works on flowers in addition to his ornithological studies.
Twelve jellies quaking – The Siphonophorae are not true jellyfish but a complex and beautiful class of colony-dwelling marine invertebrates. The best known of them is the
Portuguese Man o’ War. Several have dangerous stings while other siphonophores exhibit bioluminescence. This illustration of twelve figures (the lower left image shows two views of one creature) is from that greatest of natural history picture books, the highly influential Kunstformen der natur by Ernst Haeckel (Leipzig, Wien, Bibliographische Institut, 1899-1904).
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