ASC Rewind: Tortoises, Turtles and Terrapins

This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with new eyes.  

This article was originally published in September 2007 by Julie Gardham and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive. 

Testudo Tabulata (plate 1)

Published in 1872, Tortoises, Turtles and Terrapins is a magnificent example of a Victorian colour plate book containing sixty hand coloured lithographs. This book forms the best collection of illustrations of tortoises and turtles ever produced.

Its origins lie in a work produced some forty years earlier – the Monograph of the Testudinata by Thomas Bell (1792-1880). Published by subscription between 1832 and 1836, eight parts were produced, each containing five plates. However, its publisher ran into financial difficulties and the production of its part ceased prior to completion. The unsold parts and unpublished plates were bought by the publisher, Henry Sotheran, and the work eventually published completely in this form, containing twenty more plates than the original monograph.

Thomas Bell, a pioneering dental surgeon by profession, was also an eminent zoologist and an expert in crustaceans. He became Professor of Zoology at King’s College, London, in 1835 and was a founding member of the Zoological Society of London. His Monograph of the Testudinata has been described as the first comprehensive account of chelonians – reptiles distinguished by having the body enclosed in a double shell, and comprising the various species of tortoises and turtles. His aim was to describe all known species for the first time, writing at a time when little scientific research had been undertaken in this area, and he attributed inaccuracies to the absence of any illustrated monograph on the subject.

Since Bell had not written any explanatory text for the plates not published in the original, John Edward Gray (1800-1875) was commissioned to do so. Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum from 1840-1875, he is credited with making its zoological collections amongst the best in the world. His writing identifies each species, giving brief descriptions of habitat and characteristics, whilst quoting Bell, often at length, thereby acknowledging the work’s original source. Bell and Gray recorded the details of many species that are now on the verge of extinction, and wrote in such a way that demonstrates their awareness of their subjects’ vulnerability.

Trionyx Labiatus (plate 52)

The main attraction of the book lies in its illustrations produced by lithography, a process invented by Alois Senefelder in Germany around 1796. It is a planographic process that works upon the basic principle that grease and water repel each other. Firstly, the design is drawn upon a porous stone, ideally limestone, with a greasy ink or pencil. The drawing is then fixed with a solution of acid, then the whole stone is washed with water. A film of water will lie on the unmarked parts of the stone but not on the greasy marks of the drawing. The stone is then rolled with a greasy printing ink which is repelled by the water on the unmarked part of the surface but is accepted by the greasy marks. Finally, a sheet of printing paper is laid directly on the surface of the stone and run through a press where it takes a reversed impression of the design. By the 1820s, lithography was well-established and it was advantageous in allowing artists to draw free hand directly on to the stone as opposed to other methods of reproduction such as etching or engraving.

The drawings for the plates were produced by James de Carle Sowerby (1787-1871), an author and a scientist, from a formidable family of nineteenth century naturalists. He helped to found the Royal Botanic Gardens and, like Bell, was a founder member of the Zoological Society of London. He is now best known for his artistic contributions in book illustration and in natural history publications.

Edward Lear (1812-1888) was responsible for making the lithographs from the drawings. Sowerby would, where possible, complete his drawings from living creatures as supplied by Bell in order to ensure their features were accurately portrayed. However, Lear’s work was key in successfully bringing the reptiles to life. He made a living as an artist and painter, contributing illustrations to many natural history volumes. His work has been acclaimed for its skill and accuracy, and his bird illustrations are often singled out for praise. Similarly, he seems to depict his tortoises and turtles here with individuality and character.

The plates were printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel (1789-1850) who is credited with introducing the process of lithography to England. Produced in the 1830s, the process of colour printing had yet to be resolved and so these plates were finished by hand colouring accomplished by Gabriel Bayfield (1781-1870) and his team. Bayfield was well known for his work as a colourist, most famously employed by John Gould for his many volumes of bird books. Hand colouring was the favoured process for natural history works because the colour palette was limitless, enabling accurate depictions of animals and plants.

Emyda Punctata (plate 56)

This book is of interest to art historians and zoologists. It is a valuable resource, recording the varieties of tortoises and turtles found in the nineteenth century. Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles is a scientific achievement and an example of a beautifully crafted Victorian coloured plate book bringing these, often overlooked, reptiles to life.   

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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