New Lister Ephemera

Sachiko Kusukawa asked me to write a blog post concerning my research presented at the ICHSTM Conference in Manchester in July 2013. Before I begin, I would like to congratulate Sachiko and Sven Dupré of Max Planck for organising such a successful session concerning image and knowledge-making in early modern Europe. I was heartened to see that the contributions of artists and artisans to scientific knowledge were being considered in such an analytically nuanced manner, perhaps letting us put the arguments of C.P. Snow finally to rest.

Martin Lister, Historia Conchyliorum (c) Wellcome Images

Martin Lister, Historia Conchyliorum (c) Wellcome Images

My paper concerned some new material about the naturalist Martin Lister and his colleagues that has come to light in the Bodleian Library. In March 2012,
Diane Bergman, the Griffith Librarian at the Sackler Library in Oxford, found four more box files of Lister ephemera. After preliminary identification of their contents, I was subsequently contacted and found that the ephemera directly relate to the production of Lister’s work on conchology, the Historiae Conchyliorum (1685-92). This first comprehensive study of conchology consisted of over 1000 copperplates portraying shells and molluscs that he collected from around the world, as well as an appendix of molluscan dissections and comparative anatomy.  Lister’s daughters, Susanna and Anna, did the illustrative work for the volume.

The eighteenth-century keeper of the Ashmolean, William Huddesford (1732-1772), apparently separated the ephemera from the rest of the collection of MSS Lister.  (Arthur MacGregor wrote an excellent article about Huddesford’s role at Oxford). The Sackler, which opened in 2001, incorporated the holdings of the Ashmolean Library, which had been under Huddesford’s control as Keeper.  The rest of the Lister manuscripts were subsequently transferred from the Ashmolean to the Bodleian in the nineteenth century. And separated they remained.

What was Huddesford’s motivation for setting the papers aside? Huddesford may have set aside some of the miscellaneous loose papers, not only because the ephemera was more challenging to catalogue, but because their content related to a very specific interest of his: creating another edition of Lister’s Historiae Conchyliorum in 1770.

When we look more closely at the contents of the boxes, we see that the papers within confirm and extend what we know about the Historiae’s original construction and publication, which was of great interest to Huddesford. The first three contain draft engravings of shells on white paper pinned to seventeenth-century blue and chocolate-brown paper for the Historiae. The blue paper is similar to that of MS. Lister 9 in the
Bodleian, the original sketchbook of shells that belonged to Martin Lister’s second daughter, Anna. The pins have verdigris on their shafts, indicating copper content; they presumably were sewing pins made of brass. Such remains point to the domestic sphere in which the Historiae was produced by Lister’s daughters; not only were pins used in sewing and mending, but they were also employed to fasten clothes together: a
gentleman’s neckcloth or the front bodice of a lady’s gown; here they are used for the purposes of arrangement of specimens and taxonomic classification.

We also see in the boxes an engraving of a newt embryo to accompany a paper by Lister in the Robert Hooke’s Philosophical Collectionshis alternative publication when  the Philosophical Transactions was in abeyance. This ‘monster’ was spewed up by a York baker; upon examination of the creature, Lister was convinced that his patient
had accidentally swallowed the ‘spawn or embryo of a Toad or Newt’ while
drinking pond water. Lister used this instance to argue against the doctrine
of spontaneous generation.  Another annotated print of the etching done by Francis Place may be seen here.

This box of ephemera also gives insights into other works in which Lister and Huddesford were involved. Interspersed in these papers are prints of engravings for Edward Lhwyd’s Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia (1699), one of the first field guides to fossils. Lhwyd and Lister were great friends, and there is a large amount of extant correspondence between them, searchable and transcribed here.

As Lhwyd had difficulties getting published due to his work’s expensive illustrations, Lister also encouraged his colleagues to subscribe, the cost of the 120 books produced being shared between ten virtuosi and noblemen, including Lister, Lord Somers, Lord
Montagu, the Earl of Dorset, Dr Hans Sloane, Tancred Robinson, chemist and professor Étienne François Geoffroy of Paris, Francis Aston, and Sir Isaac Newton. Huddesford was also interested in the Lithophylacii, and, as he did with the Historiae, decided to produce a new edition, because the original text contained newly coined terms for species which eighteenth-century readers found incomprehensible, and was in some places in an
unfinished state.

Whilst looking at the Lister ephemera, I lamented the seeming loss of the original copperplates for Lhwyd’s work.  I need not have been too troubled, as in June 2013, I received another call from the eagle-eyed Alex Franklin at the Bodleian Library. The original copperplates for Lhwyd’s Lithophylacii have indeed been found, the subject of a current article I am writing. Watch this space for further developments.

If you would like to read more about the Lister ephemera, please see my recent article in the Bodleian Library Record, “A Discovery of Martin Lister Ephemera: The Construction of Early Modern Scientific Texts”, April 2013, pp. 123-35. Requests for reprints cheerfully received.

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