For my forthcoming book with Bodleian Library Press (The Lister Sisters: Women and the Art of Scientific Illustration), I have been researching the work of Martin Lister (1639-1712), a royal physician, vice president of the Royal Society, the first scientific conchologist and arachnologist, and a colleague and correspondent of Hans Sloane. Lister and his daughters Susanna and Anna produced the Historiae Conchyliorum (1685-92), the first comprehensive study of conchology. The work consisted of over 1000 copperplates portraying shells and molluscs that Lister collected from around the world, as well as an appendix of molluscan dissections and comparative anatomy.Some of the shells that Lister’s daughters illustrated still exist in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London, as part of the original collection of Sir Hans Sloane. When Sloane went to Jamaica in 1687, Lister asked him to bring back specimens not only of shells but of what he termed ‘naked snails’ or slugs. Lister also borrowed specimens from the virtuoso and collector William Courten or Charleton (1642–1702), dedicating his Historiae to him. Courten had a public museum of curiosities in a suite of ten rooms in the Temple, London, including artwork, specimens of flora and fauna, and archaeological objects. In turn, Sloane bought the collection entire, including Courten’s shells that the Listers illustrated in their book.
When he catalogued the Sloane Shell collection, Guy Wilkins first noticed the existence of the original specimens in the NHM collections, and I wished to investigate the provenance of the shells a bit further with the help of the delightful Kathie Way, the senior curator of mollusca. I also was curious about the techniques that Susanna and Lister used to portray the specimens. There were no set rules for scientific illustration in the seventeenth century, and it was an era before the development of binomial nomenclature to classify species taxonomically. Lister and his daughters were therefore creating standards for classification and identification of species.
I first noticed that when the Listers had an actual specimen to illustrate, they portrayed the shells in a one-to-one scale for ready identification. In the case of a shell from the genus patella, or a true limpet, the shell can be laid flatly on the page, and it seems that his daughters traced around its periphery to portray its margins accurately in the final engraving. It is possible to place the shell down on the drawing and get a perfect match.
We also see the same technique utilized in the portrayal of this scallop shell, Ostrea squamosa, which is the lectotype, a biological specimen selected to serve as a definitive “type” example of a species. Anna Lister portrayed the markings on the surface of the shell absolutely accurately in her copperplate engraving.
There is effective use and adaptation of perspective in the illustrations by the Lister Sisters. Melo aetheopica has a distinctive umbilicus, the origin from which the whorls of the shell grew. However, looking down upon the shell hides this feature that is of great use in classification. As a result, Susanna Lister traced its outline to obtain the general shape and then tilted it upwards to reveal the umbilicus. Her use of perspective construction was thus was not “strictly correct” but opportunistic, entirely in keeping with what Martin Kemp has demonstrated in his work concerning the historical uses of perspective construction. Her artistic judgment went beyond copying the shell, to featuring it as a taxonomic specimen of use in identification.
Currently, we are tracing the provenance of Sloane’s shell collection using inventories, correspondence, and information from the drawings themselves. Specimen exchange and collection involved far-reaching networks: traders, apothecaries, physicians, naturalists, and collectors all populated a vast intellectual geography to create the conchological collections of Sloane and the British Museum.
Martin Kemp, The Science of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).
Martin Lister, Historiae Conchyliorum (London: by the author, 1685-92).
Anna Marie Roos, ‘The Art of Science: A ‘Rediscovery of the Lister Copperplates’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 66 (1) (2012), pp. 19-40.
Anna Marie Roos, ‘A discovery of Martin Lister ephemera: the construction of early modern scientific texts‘, The Bodleian Library Record, 26, 1 (April 2013), pp. 123-135.
Anna Marie Roos, Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639-1712), the First Arachnologist (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
Kathie Way, ‘Invertebrate Collections’, In: Arthur MacGregor, (ed.) Sir Hans Sloane, Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum (London: British Museum Publishing, 1994). pp. 93-110.
Guy Wilkins, ‘A Catalogue and Historical Account of the Sloane Shell Collection’, Bulletin of The British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series, 1, 1, (London: 1953), pp. 3-50.