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Book of the Month

July 2004

Benjamin Wilkes

The English Moths and Butterflies

  London: 1749
Sp Coll Hunterian L.2.8-9

In spite of our current changeable weather, the July book of the month at least reminds us of all that summer should be in its beautiful hand coloured engravings of butterflies and moths. Made from drawings by the author, each of its 120 copperplates portrays the various stages and host plants of individual species, accompanied by descriptions of their characteristics and habitat.

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

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 serious 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. Maria Sibylla Merian's 1705 publication De Metamorphosibus Insectorum Surinamensium was one of these groundbreaking volumes, bringing the beauty of insects and their mysterious transformations to a new audience: although not the first book to illustrate insects, this impressive folio volume (consisting of sixty hand coloured plates of South American butterflies and moths painted from life) was an artistic achievement that set a precedent for similar plate books based upon the examination of insects in the field.


Little is known about Benjamin Wilkes, the author of The English Moths and Butterflies. In the preface to 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 contrast and set each other off to best advantage. Then a friend invited him to a meeting of the Aurelian Society, dedicated to the study of insects. Here, he first saw specimens of butterflies and moths which in their disposition, arrangement and contrasting colours struck him 'with amazement' and convinced him that nature would be his 'best instructor'. Over the next ten years he 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. This publication was the culmination of this work, a perfect combination of artistic skill and specialist scientific observation.

detail of plate 107 (painted lady butterfly)  

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

Wilkes' first publication on the subject had appeared in 1742. Entitled Twelve new designs of English butterflies (1742), it contained no printed text but 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'.

plate 19 (jessamine-hawk moth)

plate 30 (wild rose moth)

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, while 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 third edition of 1824, the type was completely reset and the text updated to incorporate the new system of Linnaean nomenclature.

plate 31 (goat moth)

While the main appeal of this work undoubtedly lies in its fine illustrations, Wilkes' depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject also shines through in the accompanying text. 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's great familiarity with and love of his subject. He tells us that the great yellow-underwing moth (shown at top), 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 instance, he found plenty of examples of this same moth in 'the Gardens of John Philips, 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 much advice on how to keep any specimens caught. He cautions that the caterpillar of the Goat moth (shown to the left), for example, should not be kept in a box or anything wooden as they will eat through that substance, their natural habitat being the Willow tree. 

 plate 115 (great fritillary butterfly)

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. July is seemingly a particularly abundant time - it being noted, for example, that Comb wood and the adjacent fields 'can furnish such a charming Variety of Moths and Butterflies, that I do not know of any place that any Aurelian can spend a Week with more satisfaction and assurance of success'. There are also practical instructions in the art of collecting ( 'provide yourself with a net made of Muschetto Gause, and in shape like a bat...'), preserving and breeding flies. That these directions were based upon personal experience is obvious from the description of each insect. Of the Great Fritillary butterfly shown here, for example, Wilkes recounts how on the 15th of July 1748 he had three eggs laid by 'such a fly as is represented in the plate .. and on the 5th of August the young caterpillars came forth'. He also advises that at the beginning of July the flies 'may be taken with your Net; but as no Butterfly is more swift in flight, you must attend till they settle, then be nimble and you may catch them'.

detail of plate 115 (eggs and caterpillars)

plate 6 (small ermine moth)

plate 93 (swallow-tail butterfly)

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 the illustrations above, the small Ermine moth is shown with the Orange-peach with its blossom and the Swallowtail butterfly with the Meadow Saxifrage. It seems that Wilkes could occasionally be accused of exercising an element of artistic licence in this area, however, 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'.

plate 120 (the purple high flyer, or emperor of the woods)

plate 17 (gold spot moth)

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 practised eye to discover its whereabouts'.

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. Indeed, Wilkes writes of examples such as the Purple Emperor where  'I myself have seen twenty of them taken on the same branch one after another, for although the fly seems to be extremely wild whilst on the wing, yet, when settled, you may lay your net over it with little trouble'. In his advice on catching flies, meanwhile, he can jauntily declare that once your fly is captured you should 'stick it in your box, and look for more sport'. Sadly, two hundred and fifty years later, several of the insect varieties that Wilkes would have known have died out, while butterfly numbers are on the decline. It is therefore perhaps just as well that most people are now content to enjoy these creatures when they catch a glimpse of them 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 over zealous 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; luckily for us, it was also a golden age for recording this enthusiasm in beautiful plate books such as this.

plate 61 (wild pine tree lappit moth)



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Julie Gardham July 2004