ASC Rewind: The English Moths and Butterflies

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

This article was originally published on July 2004 by Julie Gardham, and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive.

The English Moths and Butterflies [Sp Coll Hunterian L.2.8-9] by Benjamin Wilkes contains 120 copperplates of hand-coloured engravings, portraying the various stages and host plants of individual species, accompanied by descriptions of their characteristics and habitat.  

Title-page

While Albertus Magnus famously described butterflies as ‘flying worms’ in the thirteenth century, men of the Renaissance typically craved a deeper understanding of the mysteries of ‘God’s Kingdom’. This growing interest in the study of natural history was fed by the emergence of an increasing number of beautifully illustrated works depicting the natural world, aimed at the general public.  

Little is known about Benjamin Wilkes, the author of this volume. In the preface of the work, he tells us that ‘painting of History Pieces and Portraits in Oyl’ was his profession, but that he often felt at a loss to understand what colours would complement and contrast each other best. However, a friend then invited him to a meeting of the Aurelian Society dedicated to the study of insects and it was here that he first saw specimens of butterflies and moths which, in their disposition and arrangement, struck him ‘with amazement’ and convinced him that nature would be his ‘best instructor’. Over the following ten years, Wilkes spent his leisure time collecting, studying and drawing caterpillars, chrysalids and flies, greatly assisted by the well-known naturalist Mr Joseph Dandridge to whose collection he had free access. The English Moths and Butterflies was the culmination of this work, a perfect combination of artistic skill and specialist scientific observation.  

Opening showing page 2 and plate 1 (great yellow-underwing moths)

Wilkes’ first publication on the subject had appeared some years earlier. In 1742, Twelve new designs of English butterflies was published: it contained no printed text and consisted solely of twelve engraved plates depicting butterflies arranged geometrically in groups. It was published by Wilkes ‘against the Horn Tavern in Fleet Street. Where any gentleman or lady may see his collection of insects’.  

By contrast, The English Moths and Butterflies was a much larger and more ambitious work. Its colour plates portray the complete life cycles of individual species on their host plants, whilst the accompanying descriptions contain details of their ecology, morphology and habitat. Although this first edition was undated, it was probably produced in 1749. Dedicated to the President, Council and fellows of the Royal Society in London, it was popular enough to warrant a further two editions. The second edition – basically a reprint of the first, with a different title-page – appeared in 1773; although the original blocks were again used for the illustrations of the third edition of 1824, the type was completely reset and the text updated to incorporate the new system of Linnaean nomenclature.  

Detail of plate 107 (painted lady butterfly)

The central appeal of this work undoubtedly lies in its fine illustrations, however Wilkes’ depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject is apparent in the accompanying text and should not be understated. His fascination with the ‘company of insects’ is evident in the preface where he expresses his sense of wonder: ‘the Creatures here exhibited, are adorned with such a Variety of Beauty to engage our Notice, and undergo such amazing Changes in their Form and Appearance, that a thinking Mind can hardly avoid regarding them with uncommon Pleasure and a more than ordinary Attention’.  

The detailed observations made about each species also underline Wilkes’ great familiarity with and love of his subject. He tells us that the great yellow-underwing moth, for instance, usually feeds at night as many other naked caterpillars do, to avoid being devoured by birds who are ‘much fonder of the smooth caterpillars than of the hairy ones’. He frequently describes where and how he encountered each insect: for example, he found plenty of the same moth in ‘the Gardens of John Phillips, Esq at Layton in Essex; they were discovered, by the help of a candle and lanthorn, from twelve o’clock at night till two in the morning; and were so fearless, that they would suffer one to take them with the hand’. There is also substantial advice on how to keep any specimens caught, as he cautions, for example, that the caterpillar of the Goat moth should not be kept in anything wooden as they will eat through that substance, their natural habitat being the Willow tree.  

The preliminaries include a list of subscribers and some introductory notes on moths and butterflies in general. There is also an account of where members of the Aurelian Society go to collect caterpillars, chrysalids and flies in the different months of the year. Relatedly, there are practical instructions in the art of collecting, preserving and breeding flies. It is obvious that these directions were based upon personal experience due to the in-depth descriptions of each insect. For instance, Wilkes recounts that on the 15th of July 1748, the Great Fritillary butterfly had laid three eggs, and on the 5th of August, the ‘young caterpillars came forth’.  

Detail of plate 115 (eggs and caterpillars)

Since the butterflies and moths in their various forms are depicted in situ with their host plants, the publication is effectively a flower book as well as a manual of lepidoptery. In Plate 6, we see the small Ermine moth with the Orange-peach in bloom and in Plate 93, the Swallowtail butterfly with the Meadow Saxifrage. It seems that Wilkes could occasionally be accused of exercising an element of artistic license in this area, although he defends his position by claiming that the work would otherwise have been monotonous since ‘the greatest part of the caterpillars described in this work feed chiefly on the Oak, Elm, Blackthorn, White-thorn, Willow and Nettle, all which are separately represented in different plates’.  

There were still discoveries to be made in 1749. In describing one of the most beautiful species of butterflies, the Purple High-Flyer or Emperor of the Woods (now more commonly known as the Purple Emperor), Wilkes ruefully comments that examples of its caterpillar and chrysalis have yet to be discovered ‘although sought after with the utmost diligence for several years past’. Even a modern commentator, Howarth, admits that it is an insect that is difficult to find in its early stages, requiring ‘diligent searching and a practiced eye to discover its whereabouts’.  

Detail of plate 19 (caterpillar of the jessamine-hawk moth)

The hobby of butterfly collecting has now fallen out of favour but was in its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At this time, many species were found in abundance, and indeed, Wilkes writes of such examples. Sadly, two hundred and fifty years later, several of these insect varieties would have died out, whilst butterfly numbers are on the decline. It is therefore perhaps just as well that the majority of people are now content to enjoy these creatures as witnessed however infrequently in the wild. In Wilkes’ defence, however, it must be pointed out that the present ecological situation is more due to loss of habitat than the work of overzealous eighteenth-century gentlemen armed with nets and pin cushions. Wilkes came from a period that was a golden age for amateur interest in natural history – and it was also a golden age for recording this enthusiasm in beautiful plate books such as The English Moths and Butterflies.  



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