THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CONCHOLOGICAL BOOK, IN A CONTEMPORARY MOROCCO BINDING

Conchology, or the Natural History of Shells: Containing a New Arrangement of the Genera and Species, Illustrated by Coloured Engravings Executed from the Natural Specimens, and Including the Latest Discoveries. London: W.

Bulmer and Co. for William Miller, 1811 [but some plates watermarked 1813].

Folio (415 x 270mm), pp. [ii (title, verso blank)], 4 (introduction, dated 1 January 1811), [122 (explanatory text ll. describing plates 1-61, printed on rectos only, interleaved with plates)], [1 (‘Index to the Plates and Genera’)], [1 (blank)]; 61 hand-coloured aquatint plates by John Clarke after Perry, with imprint ‘London Pub. by W. Miller, 1810’ below and names of species, pl. 5 misnumbered ‘3’, pl. 6 as ‘4’, pl. 23 as ‘5’, and pl. 54 as ‘3’; occasional light foxing and offsetting from plates onto facing blank versos of text ll., text l. for pl. 17 slightly marked, some small watermarks on pl. 26; contemporary British crimson straight-grained morocco gilt, boards with borders of broad gilt foliate rolls enclosing a blind floral roll, central diamond-shaped lozenge formed of gilt floral rolls enclosed within blind rolls, the flat spine gilt in compartments, lettered directly in one, others elaborately decorated with gilt foliate and floral tools, gilt ruled board-edges, turn-ins roll-tooled in gilt, grey-blue endpapers, all edges gilt; light spotting on endpapers, extremities rubbed and bumped causing small losses, boards slightly marked and scuffed, short split on upper joint, some scuff marks, nonetheless a very good, fresh copy; provenance: Ernest Lacy (Member of the Royal Institution; booklabel on upper pastedown recording gift on 3 January 1950 to:) – Royal Institution of Great Britain (blindstamp on title; pencil note ‘21:12:[19]65 Cleaned & Polished’ on rear free endpaper; pencil [?librarian’s] monogram ‘EMB’ marking original price on front free endpaper and initialling some plates; deaccession booklabel on lower pastedown).

£5000

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First edition, early issue with plates watermarked 1813 and the first state of the letterpress. The English architect (or, possibly, stonemason) George Perry (b. 1771) was the author of two scientific publications that were as beautiful as they were groundbreaking: the Arcana (1810), subtitled The Museum of Natural History, Containing the Most Recent Discovered Objects…, and the present work, Conchology, which was one of the most controversial works on conchology of the nineteenth century, as well as one of the most beautiful. This was in part because of its ‘improbable colours’ and illustrations (Dance, p. 88), but also due to controversy over Perry’s identifications; while John Edward Gray of the British Museum considered that Perry ‘has anticipated Lamarck, Swainson and Sowerby in several places’ (Dance, p. 89), Sowerby ‘accused Perry of dreaming of extraordinary shells and transferring his impressions of them to paper when he woke up’ (op. cit. p. 88). It was not until much later that some of Perry’s names for genera and species entered the literature, and they remain in use today.

The early reception of Conchology was not entirely negative and copies were acquired by leading collectors and scientists; for example, Frances Mary Richardson Currer owned a copy. Indeed, the work enjoyed an extended success, resulting in several different printings: ‘[i]t was first published in April, 1811, at 16 guineas. The type was kept standing, and further copies were struck off from time to time as the occasion arose’ (A. Tindell Hopwood, ‘Miscellaneous Notes’, Proceedings of the Malacological Society 26 (1946), p. 152). The present copy appears to be the second of eight states identified by Hopwood, with some plates watermarked ‘J Whatman 1813’ and some text leaves watermarked ‘W Turner & Son’ without date; it is bound without the half-title and without the final advertisement leaf found in the original issue. This issue is only predated by the issue with plates printed on mixed paper stock dated 1808-1810, and the latest issue recorded by Hopwood is on paper watermarked through to 1830 (he also notes that ‘the majority of copies are elaborately bound in full morocco’, as here). The letterpress text is known in two states, and is found in the earliest state in this example: the ‘Remarks’ in the text accompanying plate 1 occupies fifteen lines and the index leaf bears the imprint of W. Bulmer and Co.

Dance comments that Perry’s Conchology ‘is the only shell book illustrated with aquatinted plates’ (The Art of Natural History (London: 1978), p. 92), and the beautiful plates of shells, which were vividly coloured by hand by the engraver John Clarke, are based on natural specimens mostly from private collections. Among the most notable are those from Elizabeth Bligh’s collection of beautiful and rare shells, brought back from the South Seas by her husband, William Bligh, captain of the Bounty, and the other collectors whose shells were examined and drawn by Perry include J.C. Lettsom, William Bullock, and George Annesley, Viscount Valentia. Perry further consulted the British Museum’s famous collections, and had a collection of his own, which served as the source for a number of the plates, including that of the Aculea Lineatam ‘From the Island of Ceylon, and very rare’ (plate 16), and two types of Voluta from New Holland and the Southern Ocean, similarly rare. Forbes notes that, ‘[a] great many of the specimens are noted as coming from various parts of the Pacific […]. Twenty-three specimens are from New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land, 10 from New Zealand, 15 from the “South Seas,” two from the Pacific Ocean, and one from “Otaheite”’. Especially interesting, apart from the colourful descriptions that match the vibrant plates, are Perry’s introductions of names for hitherto unnamed genera. For example, for the Cypræa Jenningsia (plate 19) he writes, ‘Shell of a beautiful pink colour, spotted with raised spots of a white colour; mouth of a pale pink colour, furbelowed and undulated, two dark spots of brown at each end. It is in the Museum of Mr. [Henry Constantine] Jennings, in honour of whose zeal in Conchology, (it being quite unique,) I have here named it’.

Dance, Shell Collecting (1986) 243 and pp. 88-89; Forbes 425; Nissen ZBI 3134.

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