been looking at some of the library's early books on conchology (the
study of shells) and musing on the art of scientific illustration. In
Robert Hooke's words, a successful illustrator required 'a sincere
hand and a faithful eye' to provide accurate and detailed images,
which were also aesthetically pleasing. Martin Lister, the author of Historiae Conchyliorum, published 1685-1692, took an unusual
approach to the provision of illustrations for his book by training
his two eldest daughters to draw and engrave all the specimens.
(1639-1712) was a successful physician and naturalist who became vice
president of the Royal Society, sometimes deputising for Samuel
Pepys. He was part of a group who met together to discuss new
developments in 'natural philosophy'; his particular interests were
insects, especially spiders, and rocks, fossils and shells. He became
a close friend of the celebrated naturalist John Ray, and of Sir Hans
Sloane, the founder of the British Museum, who lent Lister specimens
from his travels in Jamaica. Edward Lhwyd, Keeper of the Ashmolean
Museum, wrote to Lister, ‘I have sent by John Bartlet of the White
Swan at Holbourn bridge, a small strawberry basket, with a parcel of
your curious wrong turned snails of the woods.’
snails were kept alive by being buried in wet moss.
Lister had never achieved a medical qualification and was also
sensitive to criticism about his area of research, writing to a
friend that there were 'censorious mouthes who think and say a man
that writes on Insects can be but a trifler in Phisic'. When
he embarked upon his masterwork, the Historiae Conchyliorum, he was
determined that the quality of the work, including the illustrations,
would secure professional respect from both scientists and wealthy
collectors and connoisseurs. Using his daughters as his illustrators
gave him ultimate control of the work.
Bodleian Library has a collection of Lister's letters, papers,
sketchbooks and even the copper plates used to create the Historiae,
and it is clear from these that Lister started training the girls
from an early age. He wrote to his wife in 1681, 'I did send home a
Box of Colours in oil for Susan and Nancy [Anna] to paint with. As
for the pencills sent with them, and the colours in shells, which are
for Limning, I would have thee Lock them carefully up, tell I return,
for they know nott yet the use of them.' The girls were then aged
eleven and nine.
was very knowledgeable about the process of engraving and
illustration and there is also evidence that he and his daughters
used microscopes in their work. He seems to have sat with his
daughters while they drew the specimens, and he certainly pointed out
the features they were to record and made notes against the drawings
of shells in their sketchbooks.
1692 the book had expanded to 1073 plates of shells, slugs and
molluscan anatomy, but there was no actual text, other than sectional
headings and specimen names. Possibly because of the relative lack of
text, Lister chose not to use moveable type and any text was engraved
directly onto the copper plates, alongside the illustrations, which
meant that additions and corrections were difficult.
describes how their styles differ, most noticeably in the way they
represent shadows. 'Anne (whether painting or engraving) used bold
parallel lines of graduated thickness, while Susanna used washes or
cross-hatching' and he quotes R.Davies who remarks that ‘The plates
are executed with great fidelity and spirit, and bear testimony to
the extraordinary talents and industry of the artists’.
is possible that Lister avoided having to work with (and pay) a
printer by installing a press in his own home, he certainly chose to
print the book on the same, very thin, watermarked paper which he
used for his own correspondence. Many of Susanna and Anne's designs
incorporated distinctive,decorative borders which meant running the
sheets through the press twice and this put the thin paper under such
strain that it sometimes tore and had to be patched. Our
copy of the book contains an example of just such a repair to the
image of 'cochlia trium orbium'.
paper is so thin that beautiful, silvery grey 'ghost images' of the
shells appear on the reverse of many leaves.
conchyliorum became the bible for conchologists for over a hundred
years, and although 'Susanna and Anna Lister' are recorded on the
title page, their subsequent fate remains something of a mystery. No
further work has been recorded for either of them and, although we
know that Susanna married, had a daughter and died in 1738, there is
no further trace of Anna at all.
sisters seem to have worked on the book for over ten years -
in 1692 Edward Lhwyd wrote to Lister, ‘I do not wonder your
workw[omen] begin to be tired, you have held them so long to it’.
has to wonder if they were willing and enthusiastic participants, if
they had any choice in undertaking the work and indeed, if they ever
received any payment from their father. Perhaps in the end, when the
final version of the Historiae was published, they were simply
relieved to return to normal life and anonymous domesticity!