Lepidochromy: Butterfly Transfer Prints

This post was originally published on the Smithsonian Libraries’ blog. It was written by Daria Wingreen-Mason, Special Collections Technical Information Specialist in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History.

Horace Waller was an English missionary and anti-slavery activist in the 19th century. In 1859 Waller joined the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA). As Lay Superintendent to the UMCA, Waller befriended the famous missionary Dr. David Livingstone and botanist John Kirk who were in Africa as part of the British government-funded Zambezi Expedition. Livingstone, as head of that expedition, and Kirk, as naturalist, together navigated the Zambezi River area between 1858 and 1863. The purpose of the expedition was to chart the geography and catalogue the natural resources of the area. On 19 March 1863 Kirk wrote in his diary “Mr Waller is making a fine collection of insects, chiefly of the Lepidoptera”. Waller assembled this field book of the Butterflies collected in the Shire Valley East Africa from his time there.

Waller was an amateur naturalist, but a clearly practiced one, who shared his collection with experienced naturalists such as Roland Trimen who later thanked Waller for showing him specimens from the Shire valley.

The butterfly specimens in Waller’s field book were prepared by an infrequently employed technique termed lepidochromy in the 19th century. Lepidochromy involved using humidified, relaxed wings and an adhesive such as gum Arabic. By pressing the wings between two prepared papers the dorsal and ventral sides could be separated from each other and the scales, or “feathers”, would remain. Once mounted, the bodies of the insects were drawn in. This type of transfer illustration is classified as a nature print.

Ninety years before Waller ventured into Africa, George Edwards published a group of essays in 1770 that included “A Receipt For taking the Figures of Butterflies on Thin Gummed Paper.” This, or a slight derivation of it, was the method most likely employed by Waller to mount his “Flys”. By 1889, refinements in the process of lepidochromy were outlined completely in Scientific American, Supplement. It was a simple but onerous process where in the wings were transferred twice so that the brighter outer layer of scales would be right side up when mounted.

Printed volumes with nature prints were also published, but they were few. Printed editions were very labor-intensive and required hundreds and sometimes thousands of specimens. An immodest example is Sherman F. Denton’s two volume set of Moths and butterflies of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains (Boston, 1900) where more than 50,000 butterflies and moths were immortalized.

The scholarship on this humble field book continues. Dr. David Clough of the Namizimu Institute Mangochi Malawi recently inquired about the volume for exhibition after seeing the blog post, “The Art in Field Books” by Lesley Parilla. Dr. Clough then shared Waller’s butterflies with his colleague Dr. Lawrence Dritsas, a historian of science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. When the field book was acquired into the collection of Judge Russell E. Train in the late 20th century the authorship had been misattributed to Sir John Kirk. Dr. Dritsas has since properly identified the work’s creator as Horace Waller. Waller’s monogram is evident on the cover just below the title. From a book historian’s point of view, now the only remaining question is at what point was the field book’s authorship confused.

Lepidopterists both at the Smithsonian and in Africa have also been consulted about the specimens and a complete and accurate list of the butterfly types have been identified by Dr. Clough and Smithsonian lepidopterists Dr. Robert Robbins and Mr. Brian Harris.

This book was digitized by The Field Book Project for the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It has been transcribed within the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center.

With thanks to Dr. Lawrence Dritsas from the University of Edinburgh, David Clough from the Namizimu Institute, Steve Collins from the African Research Institute, and Dr. Robert Robbins, Brian Harris, and Lesley Parilla from the Smithsonian Institution. 

The Russell E. Train Africana Collection is housed in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History located the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Avatar for Daria Wingreen-Mason

Daria Wingreen-Mason is the Branch Librarian for the Smithsonian Libraries Research Annex.