Richard I. Vane-Wright with Oxford University Museum of Natural History
‘A Compendium of Butterflies & Moths’ sounded right up my street but, before accepting the assignment to review it, I asked the publishers for a brief description. They told me that William Jones’s Icones was created between the early 1780s and 1800 and contains finely delineated paintings of more than 850 species of Lepidoptera. It marked a critical moment in the study of natural history as many butterfly and moth species were described for the first time. The only manuscript copy in existence in the world is conserved in the archives of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, together with Jones’s surviving papers, correspondence, field notebooks and his specimen collection. Here Jones’s seminal work is published for the first time as a beautifully-enhanced facsimile, accompanied by commentary and contextual essays by experts. This was not going to be dull.
The Icones comprise 1,292 watercolour paintings by William Jones (1745–1818) of 856 butterfly species presented in seven volumes. Of these species, 231 are so-called iconotypes, from which new species were named by Johan C. Fabricius without him seeing the original specimens. A full list of these iconotypes is given towards the back. The book begins with a foreword by Professor Paul Smith, Director of the Oxford Museum of Natural History, and an Introduction by Dr Richard (Dick) Vane-Wright (formerly Keeper of Entomology at the NHM, now Associate Member of Kent University’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, and stalwart of the RES). They describe William Jones’ background, life and times,massociates and influencers, provenance of the specimens that he painted (some coming from his own collection, some from other collections and some from illustrations in other publications) and what happened to the Icones after Jones’ death.
Jones was not just a great artist, but also a well-connected natural historian, linguist and poet. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1791, just three years after it was founded. Linnaeus died in 1778 whilst Jones was painting his Icones, and Jones, through careful observation of various morphological characteristics (including wing venation), was able to improve considerably upon Linnaeus’ classification of butterflies. We are reminded that all of this was pre-Darwin, and hence Jones was trying to establish purely systematic, rather than phylogenetic, relationships.
The paintings themselves are fabulous and take up the vast majority of the book. They cover the Icones volume by volume, each volume beginning with an index comprising small pictures with a species name (Latin italics, but with the species initial in capitals) and the page on which that species can be found. There are useful maps showing the distribution of the species illustrated and in which volumes they appear, a map for the whole world presented near the front, and continental or subcontinental maps appearing one at the end of each of Volumes I to VI. Volumes I to VI each cover a particular systematic grouping, but illustrations within each volume were, it seems, built up as specimens became available and are not presented in any discernible systematic or geographic order. Volume VII comprises the species copied from other illustrations. The paintings are approximately life-size and include, in Jones’ magnificent script, the source of the butterfly’s name (author and publication), the collection from which it came, a brief morphological description in Latin and the inferred country of origin. Added to each by the editors is the current binominal name, author, date and, where discernible, sex, together with a few pertinent notes on the painting.
At the end of each volume (except Volume II) comes additional text on the history of collecting, studying and illustrating of butterflies, with reference to Jones as appropriate.These fascinating and well-illustrated endpieces are written by Dr Alberto Zilli (Curator of Lepidoptera at the NHM), Dr Arlene Leis (independent art historian) and Stefanie Jovanic-Kruspel (art historian at the University of Vienna). Dr Francisco Sánchez-Bayo (University of Sydney) follows Volume VI with an account of the decline of Lepidoptera around the globe. Dick Vane-Wright returns after Volume VII with a conclusion on the legacy of William Jones. The list of iconotypes follows, then a bibliography, list of sources of illustrations and finally an index to the species illustrated.
The Icones are not only extraordinarily beautiful paintings, but they present an important record of a pre-industrial butterfly world. Several of the illustrated species are extinct or locally extinct. It is wonderful that they have finally been published. Combined with the notes from experts, this book forms, in the words of the publishers, an exquisite work of natural history from the Age of Enlightenment. I couldn’t agree more.