Theophilus Johnson and the art of self publishing

spineviewOne great way to re-discover or learn about items in our collections is through answering enquiries from researchers, from all over the world, who find us through our online catalogue and want to know more about items they’ve found listed. One example would be the works of amateur naturalist and artist Theophilus Johnson. Here at Special Collections we are fortunate enough to have Johnson’s The Mammals of the British Isles and a five volume set of Birds of the British Isles from 1909.

Plate where pencil marks are visible and the shine on the thicker paint in Birds of the British Isles.

Illustration where pencil marks are visible and the shine on the thicker paint in Birds of the British Isles.

Our enquirer was interested in different aspects of the books, such as whether they were written by hand in manuscript form or printed in letterpress form, and how many illustrations were in an average volume. These questions were intriguing and so I set off to have a look at what are attractive and interesting but rather odd publications. The illustrations in the book contain individually drawn illustrations which were painted by hand and many of which have pencil marks clearly visible. Not only that but while the text is indeed printed there are some details that appear to be drawn or perhaps stamped by hand and the index contains corrections pencilled in, perhaps after printing. My interest was piqued – how was this put together and by whom?

After some searching it appears that not that much has been written about Theophilus Johnson as a man or an artist and it seems that many of his works remain in private hands (though many are also available in the Natural History Museum). The lack of information about Theophilus Johnson and his output is perhaps connected to the fact that he self published his works. After talking with the enquirer and a little digging online it appears that Theophilus Johnson was born in Tottenham in 1836, apprenticed himself as a stationer and then set up his own letterpress printing business. He seems to have been an amateur naturalist and spent much of his time in the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London. His main interest appears to have been entomology however his books cover a wide variety of subjects from molluscs to mammals.

The quality of his drawing and painting varies somewhat in our copies. His mastery of birds is much more consistent and beautiful than many of his depictions of mammals who seem strange and oddly proportioned in some of the illustrations.

Example plates from Johnson's Mammals of the British Isles.

Details from example illustrations in Johnson’s Mammals of the British Isles.

One of the main sources of information I found on Theophilus Johnson is Howard Radclyffe’s article in Archives of Natural History (1995) which addresses this variability in Johnson’s artistry:

‘Johnson’s paintings are idiosyncratic and not to everyone’s taste. Peter Dance (1978) in his invaluable Art of Natural History (one of the few reference works that mentions Johnson) finds his Illustrations of Exotic Conchology of 1906 “more noteworthy for their gaudiness than their accuracy”. Some of Johnson’s later paintings can verge on the caricaturistic but at his best he can be remarkably good … Above all he had the ability to instil life and vigour into his subjects, a quality not always apparent in the work of natural history illustrators of his time.’

There was obviously demand for his work as, though self published, his books were often commissioned by individuals. Johnson states in our copy of Birds of the British Isles:  ‘The kind appreciation of my work thus implied is of course gratifying: I can but wish it had been better deserved…I may, however, say that the figures illustrating this book do at least represent my best and most conscientious work; and that upon every one of them I have bestowed all the manipulative skill that has been bestowed upon me’.

depictions of birds in Johnson's Birds of the British Isles

Example illustrations showing Johnson’s depictions of birds in Birds of the British Isles.

It’s also interesting to consider that much of his work seems to have been based on sketching creatures in artificial habitats, such as the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London, and yet his paintings often show his subjects in wild outdoor scenes, such as the otters catching fish in the forest or a bat swooping across a purple sky. To what extent Johnson may have set out into the countryside to observe and sketch is not known and it is easy to suppose that his illustrations may be largely imagined scenes, perhaps how he liked to think of them in their true habitat.

According to Radclyffe it seems that Johnson created books at different times for different people but with very similar titles. The books themselves, though similar in subject matter or with similar illustrations and text, were often commissioned for a specific person and put together solely by Johnson, with the illustrations done by hand, and as a result are often the only one just like it making each volume produced by Johnson potentially unique. For example, both of our titles can be found in Howard Radclyffe’s list of non-entomological books however they don’t seem to match exactly, as Birds of the British Isles is listed as being in only three volumes whereas our Special Collections edition is in five volumes.

Examples of the letterpress and occasional hand done embellishments in Johnson's Mammals of the British Isles

Examples of prefatory pages in Johnson’s Mammals of the British Isles. The title page shows evidence of details added by hand.

The bindings of our copies are fairly plain and it’s not clear to what extent Johnson was able to bind his own books, so he quite possibly outsourced this aspect of the publishing. However for each of these books he drew and painted the watercolour illustrations by hand and because he had his own letterpress printing business he was also able to print the text pages himself, although it is interesting to note that while our copies are letterpress Johnson seems to have created other volumes in manuscript form.

Johnson’s familiarity with the publishing trade seems to have informed how he liked to structure his books as they contain features you might normally expect such as a dedication page, a title page, sometimes two title pages, an index, etc. Yet they do have an amateurish quality thanks to little details such as obvious pencil marks around the drawings, pencilled in additions to the index and hand drawn borders around the title page – however this ‘handmade’ and craft like approach to publishing the volumes also gives them their charm and their unique and personal touch.

Example text pages from volumes of Johnson's Birds of the British Isles.

Example pages from volumes of Johnson’s Birds of the British Isles. On the first index page a pencilled in addition can be seen at the bottom.

Page showing commission was from S.G.Castle Russell, from Mammals.

Page showing commission was from S.G.Castle Russell, from Mammals.

What makes these publications odd is also what makes them fascinating and pleasing items. The fact that they are almost entirely the work of one man who, with the support of interested parties, self published each volume demonstrates a real passion and interest in both the subject and the form – in terms of the study of insects, birds and mammals, the medium of watercolour and in books and publishing.

Our volumes were commissioned by S.G.Castle Russell who, though also an obscure character, was an entomologist with a particular interest in butterflies. It’s interesting then that he should have commissioned works on birds and mammals. There seems to be no information now on how Johnson went about self publishing his remarkably large output of natural history books with little evidence to account for who his clients were, what he charged, or quite how he put the volumes together. The main evidence we have to go on for now are Johnson’s books themselves.

Radclyffe quotes Johnson in a letter: “I do not quite like the idea of leaving nothing behind me for those who may like something in the way of art by which to remember me”. Perhaps it is fitting that Theophilus Johnson’s books are what we have to remember him by as there is no shortage of personality and intrigue in these very individual volumes.

Sources referred to:

‘Theophilus Johnson: amateur naturalist, artist and publisher extraordinaire’ by Howard Radclyffe in Archives of Natural History (1995) 22 (2): 183-190. (Click for access to article via Edinburgh University Press).

Categories: Special Collections

Tags: ,

1 reply


  1. Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vo. #48 | Whewell's Ghost

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: