The Lost Artists Of British Enlightenment Natural History

Presented by Isabelle Charmantier, The Linnean Society of London.


Taking the art collection of the Linnean Society of London as a case study, this paper looks at the many drawings, paintings and illustrations of the natural world collected and commissioned by the Society’s Fellows in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These Fellows came from varied backgrounds, including surgeons, medical doctors, reverends and army soldiers. They were part of the British colonial enterprise, exploring and settling in Burma, Nepal, India and the West Indies. Their observations about the botany and zoology they studied were sent back to the Society to be read to other Fellows at meetings and published in the Society’s journals. Yet the artwork accompanying these observations was not generally drawn by the authors themselves but by local or indigenous artists they employed. The identities of these artists remain unknown in most cases, but the images they drew were of paramount importance in the construction of natural historical knowledge in Enlightenment Britain. The images they drew to accompany textual descriptions of new plants and animals were often the first to be seen in Europe. These artists were steeped in their own visual and technical traditions, yet they were expected to conform to Western standards of depicting plants and animals, that mirrored taxonomic and nomenclatural objectives. The resulting works reflect the meeting of different cultural, sociological and ecological concerns. The talk will present three specific examples from the Society’s collections and explore what can be done to decolonise the collections, to resurrect these artists, and give back the recognition they deserve.

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NatSCA Digital Digest

Welcome to the weekly digest of posts from around the web with relevance to natural science collections. We hope you find this useful and if you have any articles that you feel would be of interest, please contact us at

1. Blog: Eton College, Natural History Museum

George Fussey, Curator, and colleagues


Rather than drawing your attention to a specific article on this blog, I am rather pointing out that this blog exists in case you hadn’t yet come across it. Having been to the Natural History Museum at Eton College myself, I can tell you that it is well worth the visit. I had the great pleasure of being shown around the Museum by Curator George Fussey, and there are certainly treasures to be seen there. I encourage you to have a look at this blog, it may be one of great interest to many people in our sector.

Eton College, Natural History Museum Blog

If you think our platy is a fatty, you should see the one at Eton! Specimen LDUCZ-Z20 (C) UCL / Grant Museum

If you think the Grant Museum’s platy is a fatty (above), you should see the one at Eton! Specimen LDUCZ-Z20 (C) UCL / Grant Museum

2. Conference: Radiation and Extinction: Investigating Clade Dynamics in Deep Time

The Linnean Society of London, 10-11th November 2014


To address the issues in the modern day caused by global warming, this conference aims to look at the past. It will focus on:

“Determining the causes and drivers of evolutionary dynamics is central to our understanding of life on Earth. What factors shaped the modern biota? Why did some groups go extinct, whilst others survived and radiated? Why are some groups so much more diverse than others? What will happen to organisms as the Earth continues to warm up?”

Radiation and Extinction: Investigating Clade Dynamics in Deep Time

A representative of extinction- the dodo head cast. Specimen LDUCZ-Y86 (C) UCL / Grant Museum

A representative of extinction- the dodo head cast at the Grant Museum of Zoology. Specimen LDUCZ-Y86 (C) UCL / Grant Museum

3. Training: Documentation Training Course

Museum of London, Docklands, 25th April 2014


Museum volunteers are invited to attend this course run as part of the Regional Museums Development programme. The course is designed to look at how to deal with issues of documentation, as well as the theory behind collections management.

Contact to book.

Compiled by Emma-Louise Nicholls, NatSCA Blog Editor