In this day and age, science is a serious business pursued by experts who are mostly employed by universities or research facilities. These rational organisations like to trace their lineages back to the late 18th Century Enlightenment, but such narratives are never linear or straight-forward. In 2001 the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, acquired an extraordinary manuscript, The Naturalists Companion, Containing drawings with suitable descriptions of a vast variety of Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes, Serpent and Insects; &c accurately copied either from Living Animals or from the stuffed Specimens in the Museums of the College and Dublin Society. This volume, of a miscellany of museum artefacts, natural history specimens, and material culture, exemplified the way many Europeans encountered natural history from the new world: not with Enlightenment rigour but with eclectic and unsystematic enthusiasm.
This curious volume was compiled by a youthful Kenelm Henry Digby. Digby was born in Ireland in 1800 and died in London in 1880. Although born into a strongly Protestant family, by the mid-1820s, having moved to England to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, he had converted to Catholicism and devoted most of the rest of his life to writing about the Catholic faith, for which he attracted some prominence. He was also a committed antiquarian, a latent interest already visible in The Naturalists Companion.
A Random Compendium…
It seems that Digby compiled The Naturalists Companion in the mid to late 1810s. It is a random compendium of natural history, ethnographic and antiquarian subjects, illustrated with birds, animals and insects from around the world (including Australia), Native American artefacts, Pacific artefacts (some collected by Captain Cook) as well as Irish antiquities. Yet this lack of the obvious taxonomy, which would now be expected of such publications—indeed its eccentric disorder—clearly illustrates a then-common world view, which celebrated the bounty of the Creator, and omnivorously described both the well known and the new, be it from Australia, the Pacific, Ireland or the Americas.
In every way, too, the volume illustrates the often apparently haphazard composition of early nineteenth century European museums. Comparisons with published catalogues from contemporary museums, such as the Leverian Museum or William Bullock’s Museum, shows how close Digby’s own manuscript museum was in conception to contemporary professional museums.
…The Wonder…of Brute Creation
The scale of his undertaking was enormous and quixotic, reflecting a prodigious and admirable youthful enthusiasm, which he later brought to his prolific writings on the Catholic Church. The album contains some 525 pages of text, which comprises both his own words and extracts from the works of others, and about 450 illustrations, which he drew himself. Digby himself wrote that his intention was to highlight to all “but the most insensible mind … wonder at the formation and the various properties, and dispositions of the Brute Creation” (p.453). In other words, the book was a celebration of the diversity of God’s creation, rather than a rational attempt to impose order on the natural world.
Digby drew his specimens from, amongst other places, the museums of Trinity College, Dublin, and the Dublin Society, now the Royal Dublin Society. Indeed the original specimens for some of his illustrations, such as the Giraffe or Cameleopard on page 116, the Kanguroo on page 8, or the Blue Shark on page 193, can be seen on display in WB Taylor’s 1819 aquatint Museum of T.C.D [Museum of Trinity College Dublin]. His text eschews entirely any semblance of scientific or taxonomic rigour, instead repeating anecdote and basic observation. Of the Blue Shark, for instance, he notes that “no fish can swim so fast as the shark, he outstrips the swiftest ships, such amazing powers, with such great appetites for destruction…”
It would seem too that at the time he was putting together the volume a menagerie was operating in Dublin: his drawing of a kangaroo, for instance, is said to be “copied from a living animal, exhibited in Dublin.” At least 23 of his illustrations are from a local menagerie.
Artefacts from the Pacific Voyages of Captain Cook
Of great importance are the numerous illustrations of Pacific artefacts, which are now of major historical and ethnographic interest. These drawings suggest how quickly and easily specimens from the Pacific dispersed throughout Europe. Many, such as Dress of a Chief Mourner, from Otaheite (p.221), depict material collected on Captain Cook’s Second voyage by surgeon James Patten, who settled in Dublin immediately after his return. He gave his collections to Trinity College in 1777, which were latter transferred to the National Museum of Ireland. The mourning dress itself was in turn presented to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii in 1971 .
The Trade in Natural History Specimens
It is an intriguing point that The Naturalists Companion includes at least eleven drawings of Australian animals. This is fascinating evidence for the commercialisation and trade of local fauna throughout Europe in the early nineteenth century. Further research would no doubt reveal what menageries were in Dublin at the time this volume was made. The drawings include cockatoos (see page 7 and page 296), two drawings of kangaroos (see page 8 and page 290), parrots (see page 4 and page 295) and a lyre-bird (see page 294, which has been mis-described as a black bird of paradise and probably copied from the engraving published in the second volume of David Collins An account of the English colony in New South Wales, 1802).
Combined, the Australian natural history and the Pacific ethnographic drawings of Digby’s The Naturalists Companion—scattered as they are amongst collections of fauna and artefacts from around the world—create a unique insight into the intellectual milieu in which Australia and its region began to be revealed to Europe. What makes The Naturalists Companion so important is its tangible illustration of a very conventional—even if by today’s standards chaotic—way of organising and describing the world. The unusual juxtapositions and non sequiturs of the volume—particularly evident in the biblical Peaceable Kingdom frontispiece—simply reflects the then common encyclopaedic approach to the description of the natural world and its phenomena: there was enormous interest in the world but for people like Digby, instead of trying to corral it into some kind of order, they accepted its diversity as evidence of the creativity the Creator.
..,the Visionary Subjects of the Traveller…
In this sense, The Naturalists Companion documents European attitudes towards Australia and the Pacific in the early nineteenth century, explaining clearly what interested Europeans about the Pacific. In many respects the youthful Digby’s enterprise parallels other projects undertaken by colonists in New South Wales at roughly the same time. For instances, two commandants of the penal colony at Newcastle, 160 kilometres north of Sydney, were also actively collecting and arranging local natural history. In 1813, Lieutenant Thomas Skottowe directed a convict artist under his charge to illustrate a manuscript he called Select Specimens of nature (Library call no. SAFE PXA 555). Skottowe was just as enthusiastic as Digby, noting that the illustrations he had commissioned of butterflies would challenge “many nice Critics” who would “dispute the Existence of the most of them, and put them down to the Visionary subjects of the traveller.”
Five years later, in 1818, Captain James Wallis commissioned a chest now known as the Macquarie Collector’s Chest (Library call no. XR 69). This extraordinary artefact, of painted panels and natural history specimens decoratively arranged, is another iteration of the sensory pleasure of curiosity and the exotic. Again, Wallis was not a natural historian or a taxonomist, but rather someone entranced by the sheer difference of Australian natural history. Pointedly, too, Wallis gave this chest to his superior, Governor Macquarie, in part as an elaborate but fairly conventional idea of “managing up”, as we would now say, but also very much as a celebration of the richness of Australian natural history, which was now in the embrace of the British Empire.
You can also browse all of the illustrations from this work in the BHL Flickr.