Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-1791) was a prominent naturalist who traded in natural history objects such as fossils, corals and shells but who is little remarked upon within the secondary sources of this field today. Da Costa’s contribution to science, art and to the collecting habits of the 18th Century has gone largely unnoticed, but more recent academic investigations into his correspondence shall hopefully alter this fact. As a History of Art postgraduate student, I was first introduced to this interesting figure during a project-based work experience placement within the Special Collections department of the University Library, which ran from January through to April 2012.
My brief was to research a rare copy of da Costa’s Conchology, or a natural history of shells (London: printed by T. Jones [1770-1771]), which had recently been purchased with support from the National Fund for Acquisitions and the Friends of Glasgow University Library. Using this publication as my focus, my outcome was to create a display for it alongside a selected number of related items, to be featured in the showcase situated in the foyer area on level 12 of the University Library.
This small exhibition case is used to publicise Special Collections material and the current items now on display include da Costa’s three beautifully illustrated shell publications. His writings were hugely influential and through them he offers advice to collectors, introduces his own classification system of shells and details the appearance of all known shells that were featured in previous conchological works.
A shell cabinet which boasted a variety of shell specimens from around the world was a Natural History collector’s prize piece in the latter half of the 18th Century. Nowadays, however, it requires a great deal of imagination from us to visualise the astonishment with which these newly discovered shells were viewed at this time. Conchology (the study of shells) was a growing field of scholarship both in Britain and on the continent following the Pacific and South Sea voyages of Captain Cook, on both the Endeavour (1768-71) and the Resolution (1772-75), as many of the specimens brought home from these travels had previously been doubtful in existence or even totally unknown. Their scarcity, along with their aesthetic attractiveness, brought what are even the most common shells today incredible value and reverence. Most species of sea, river and land shells were highly sought after and sparked much rivalry amongst collectors of the day who were seemingly willing to purchase specimens for a higher price than great works of art.
The theme of my display as a A Cabinet of Curiosities hopefully captures the idea that these volumes too can be viewed much like a labeled cabinet of shells and, of course, they would have been an essential purchase for shell collectors who wished to correctly identify the shells featured in their collections.
Da costa lectured and published on the subject of both European shells and the newly discovered ‘voyage shells’, brought back to Britain from foreign lands. Several of da Costa’s original names and classification of shells may still be in existence today and his contribution to the study of natural history earned him a position of authority on the subject. By appealing for patronage from some of Britain’s most affluent collectors such as Dr John Fothergill (1712-80) and Dr William Hunter (1718-83), da Costa ensured that he became very much part of a network of learned men throughout his life; this is evident through his correspondence, the majority of which is now held by the British Museum in London.
Alongside da Costa’s conchological writings in the display are three shells from Hunter’s original collection, kindly on loan from the University’s Hunterian Museum. Hunter had acquired the majority of his shells in 1780 at the posthumous sale of his friend Dr Fothergill. Fothergill had amassed a large collection of voyage shells, often by purchasing directly from Cook’s crew members. An early catalogue drawn up by Hunter’s trustees, also available in Special Collections (Sp Coll MR 21), details around 1,855 entries for shells, indicating the many varieties represented in this hugely significant collection. Hunter’s library is now held in the department and is a diverse collection of books which mirror his many interests. Interestingly, although his collection includes a number of rare and important shell books, he did not purchase da Costa’s writings on the subject. Subsequent acquisitions however, have now filled this gap.
As well as the da Costa works featured in the display, many other shell books written by various European authors found throughout our collections make Special Collections a significant resource for researchers wishing to explore the history of conchology further. The vast number of rare books and manuscripts held on level twelve ensure that there is yet much to be uncovered and studied and I urge any student looking for research material or even a dissertation topic to come and discover original material which may be of interest to you.
If you would like to see more images from the books on display, visit our flickr set.
Blog post by Alexandra Doak.
Tags: 18th century collectors, conchological books, conchology, Cookian shells, emanuel mendes da costa, engraved plates, fothergill, Hunterian Museum, illustrated books, natural history illustrations, rare books, shell books, Special Collections, voyage shells, voyages of discovery, william hunter