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One of these treasures isn’t really a book at all, but an unpublished manuscript that is now recognized as the first attempt at classifying and illustrating the insect fauna of Newfoundland.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.