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The Lister copperplates

by on December 9, 2010

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— from Anna Marie Roos, Ph.D. Research Fellow, Faculty of History

Martin Lister (1639-1712) was one of the more important doctors and virtuosi of his generation. He was a court physician to Queen Anne, vice-president of the Royal Society, wrote nineteen books, and was the first arachnologist and conchologist. His memoirs of his travels in Paris in 1697 were a bestseller, and he invented the histogram.

From 1685 to 1692, Lister compiled his masterwork– the Historiae Conchyliorum. This first comprehensive study of conchology consisted of over 1000 copperplates of shells and molluscs that he collected from around the world. Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum, lent Lister species from his travels in Jamaica. Edward Lhwyd, the keeper of the Ashmolean, sent him live snails in strawberry baskets lined with damp moss. The 1140 pieces of Lister’s correspondence left to us show he was part of a global Republic of Letters of virtuosi who exchanged ideas and specimens. (I have calendared Lister’s correspondence and am editing it for publication with the Cultures of Knowledge Project at Oxford).

However, engraving such a large number of plates was no small or inexpensive feat, and it was one that Lister did not accomplish alone, employing his daughters as the primary draftswomen. By the time they were teenagers, Susanna and Anna Lister’s initials appeared on the title page of the Historiae.

In 1712, Lister willed the copperplates to the University of Oxford. In the mid-eighteenth century, William Huddesford, keeper of the Ashmolean, used the copperplates to create another edition of the Historiae Conchyliorum, but after that there wasn’t anything more in the published literature.

When I was writing my biography of Lister*, I assumed that the plates were lost. After all, Lister’s donation of specimens of natural history to the Ashmolean had disappeared with the vagaries of time. But then, through a friend of a friend, I was introduced to biologist Jeremy Woodley who mentioned that he had seen the plates in some “tea chests” at Oxford several decades ago. Lee Peachey at the University of Pennsylvania then confirmed that the plates still existed. But where were they? My heart thumping, I made frantic inquiries, particularly since my biography of Lister was about ready to go to press.

I wrote to the Rare Books section at the Bodleian Library , asking if they were there – and two days later, I saw them in person. There were the swirling curves of the bear paw clam, engraved by Anna Lister after a work of Wenceslaus Hollar that is now in the Queen’s Collection. There was the conus marmoreus, or marbled cone, which Anna copied from an engraving done by Rembrandt, correcting his portrayal of the shell as a mirror-image. Peachey told me that he thought some plates give us first-hand evidence of the rubbing out and re-engraving done as the final set of the plates evolved through its several editions created between 1685 and 1692. I suspect that these remarkable survivals will reveal much more to us about illustrations in natural history, book history, and the role of women in early science.

*Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639-1712), the First Arachnologist (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

For the collection-level description of Martin Lister’s manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, see:
http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/1500-1900/lister-m/lister-m.html

For the description of Martin Lister’s books now held in the Bodleian Library, see the entry under ‘Lister’ in:
http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley/library/specialcollections/catalogues/rare_books/rare_books_named_collections

The copperplates are kept in preservation envelopes and individual plates can be located using a handlist available from the Rare Books Section (e-mail rare.books[at]bodleian.ox.ac.uk)

See the Nature News story from 24 December 2010, about the copperplates, http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101224/full/news.2010.689.html

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