A Rare, 19th-Century Manuscript Chronicles the Quest of an Amateur Naturalist

Treasures abide in many corners of a natural-history museum and there are many such treasures in the museum’s rare book collection. As the library’s acquisitions officer and a book lover, I’m privileged to handle these books as part of my job, and I often regret that more people aren’t able to see and appreciate them.

One of these treasures isn’t really a book at all, but an unpublished manuscript that is now recognized as the first attempt at classifying and illustrating the insect fauna of Newfoundland. It is called Entomologia Terrae Novae and it is the creation of the English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.

Colour illustrations of butterflies and small stems.

One of about 250 magnificent illustrations in the Entomologia Terrae Novae manuscript, which was written by naturalist Philip Henry Gosse in the 19th century. Gosse represented many species in the Lycaenidae family. He appears to have paid the same attention to detail for the plants as for the insects. Illustration: Philip Henry Gosse © Public domain

A studio portrait of a man seated at a table, looking through a microscope.

Philip Henry Gosse, 1863. Image: Widger Photo © Public domain

Gosse arrived in Carbonear, Newfoundland, in 1827 at the age of 17 as an indentured clerk with an English firm that imported Newfoundland cod and sealskins. In 1832, he purchased a copy of a book titled Essays on the Microscope, and he commenced what he called his “serious and decisive devotion to scientific Natural History”. It was at this time also that Gosse became a devout Christian. These two aspects of his personality imbued him with a desire to replicate in his art the wonder he saw in nature.

A leather-covered book box and its book, covered in marbled paper.

Left: The box for the manuscript that was written and illustrated by John Gosse in the 19th century. Right: the manuscript. Images: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

The open box and a letter.

The box that holds Entomologia Terrae Nova and a letter written by Gosse. The work had been lost for many years. It was found by the Gosse family and offered to the museum in the 1950s. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

Entomologia Terrae Novae is a small sketchbook of some 60 pages, and unfinished at that, but it is a testament to one man’s passion for the natural world. Gosse painted in exquisite detail some 250 figures of Newfoundland insects, larvae and pupae, supplementing the art with the meticulous notes that he kept while collecting his specimens. With a condensed copy of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae in one hand, he “puzzled” his brain for hours trying to identify everything he had found.

An open notebook showing discoloured pages with handwriting.

Handwritten notes of naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. Image: Philip Henry Gosse © Public domain

The glory of Entomologia Terrae Novae is, however, in the artwork. With the help of a home-made microscope, Gosse captured in minute and accurate detail the complex patterns of butterfly wings, the delicate hairs on a dragonfly’s body and the iridescence of a beetle’s shell.

Black swallowtails in different lifecycle stages.

Black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) in different lifecycle stages. Gosse reared butterflies and moths so he could observe their metamorphosis. Image: Philip Henry Gosse © Public domain

Many of the insects were painted in their original size, often five millimetres or less, and then painted again magnified many times. The original-sized paintings are hardly blobs of paint, as you might imagine. Gosse was already a skilled miniaturist painter by age 25 and his ability to reproduce patterns and colours on such a small scale is marvellous. The magnified versions reveal the details in greater clarity and the colours in all their magnificence, but the creatures painted in actual size are so life-like they appear to be skittering across the page.

One page in the open notebook.

A page of Coleoptera illustrations from Entomologia Terrae Novae showing weevils and a beetle (in black and orange). Note the illustrations in life size and the corresponding magnified illustration in the box. Gosse was committed to scientific accuracy. Image: Philip Henry Gosse © Canadian Museum of Nature

A black and white illustration of Pissodes striatulus.

A pine weevil, Pissodes striatulus (Fabricius), from the Coleoptera sketches. Image: Philip Henry Gosse © Canadian Museum of Nature

Gosse left Newfoundland for Quebec’s Eastern Townships in 1835, bringing his insect cabinets and precious manuscript with him. Although lured by the promise of inexpensive land, he was unable to make a success of farming and after three years moved to Alabama. Here he created another wonderful sketchbook of insects called Entomologia Alabamensis. Gosse finally returned to England in 1839.

Five insect illustrations on one page.

Illustration of wood wasps or horntails in the Siricidae family (order Hymenoptera). Illustration: Philip Henry Gosse © Canadian Museum of Nature

Six insect illustrations on one page.

A selection of flies. Most are crane flies in the Tipulidae family. Illustration: Philip Henry Gosse © Public domain

Entomologia Terrae Novae was for many years a lost manuscript. Gosse’s son, the poet and literary critic Edmund Gosse, searched for it without success. It was finally located after Edmund’s death by his son Philip and donated to the museum in the 1950s.

Four dragonfly illustrations.

Different species of dragonflies (order Odonata). Illustration: Philip Henry Gosse © Public domain

I’m sure the digital images accompanying this blog will convey some of the beauty of Gosse’s work, but I’m a traditionalist. When I open the marbled cover of Entomologia Terrae Novae and see its delicate pages and even more delicate drawings, I’m holding a bit of the soul of a man in my hands. It’s a wonderful little treasure with a colourful history.

This entry was posted in Animals, Art, Collections, History, Tools of the trade and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Rare, 19th-Century Manuscript Chronicles the Quest of an Amateur Naturalist

  1. Valréie H says:

    extremely cool.
    thanks ted

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