British Entomology

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British Entomology is a classic work of entomology by John Curtis, FLS.

A plate from British Entomology

Described as: "British Entomology, being illustrations and descriptions of the genera of insects found in Great Britain and Ireland; containing coloured figures from nature of the most rare and beautiful species, and in many instances of the plants upon which they are found". The work comprised 770 hand-coloured, copper-plate engravings, each 8 by 5 12 inches, together with two or more pages of text. The work was issued in monthly parts over 16 years commencing 1st January 1824, each part comprising 3 or more plates. Published in London by the author, with the final part published 1st December 1839.

It was a masterpiece of the engraver's and colourist's art, described by the eminent French naturalist Georges Cuvier as the "paragon of perfection". It was, unsystematically produced but each plate is dated, so this generally introduces no problems of name priority. However, confusion can arise with reprinted plates 1 to 34 (see below) where the text was rewritten, often with changes to nomenclature, yet the date shown on the plate remained that of the earlier initial publication. Every illustration was a extremely fine copper-plate engraving by Curtis himself who also oversaw the meticulous hand colouring. The final issue of the first edition included comprehensive indexes to all volumes plus a complete list of subscribers for each volume and detailed instructions for binding the work into 8 volumes in the correct sequence of orders. Many copies were, however, bound in the alternative manner as 16 volumes with the plates in numerical order. Curtis's original 778 drawings (some drawings were combined to produce a single plate) were purchased by Lord Rothschild who later bequeathed them to the Natural History Museum, London.

At an unknown date, circa 1885, low quality, hand-coloured, lithographic copies of many plates were produced independently and these can frequently be found making-up what would otherwise be an incomplete set (see below).

Aside from its noted illustrations, British Entomology is a work of taxonomy introducing many new species. This is especially true of the folios on Diptera and Hymenoptera where much of the text and probably many of the dissection figures were the work of Alexander Henry Haliday.

The volumes are most commonly bound as:

Publication History:

First Edition:

The initial list comprised 167 subscribers, of whom 87 committed to the entire work. Publication commenced on 1st January 1824 with a proposed print run of 200 copies to be issued over 16 years as 16 volumes each of 12 parts - 192 parts in all. Each monthly part to comprise 3 or more plates with accompanying text. By January 1839 the list of subscribers had fallen to 142. Of the original subscribers, only 31 eventually purchased all 192 parts and of these 3 were joint-subscribers and 2 others each purchased 2 complete proof sets.

Reprint of Parts 1 to 8 (Plates 1 - 34):

Demand from later, new subscribers required Curtis retrospectively to print an additional unknown number of copies of parts 1 to 30. This reprint commenced in early January 1829. These reprints continued until 1840 and were concurrent with the printing of the remaining parts 31 to 192 of the First Edition which were increased in number to accommodate the additional demand. Reprints of the plates and text of plates 1 to 34 (parts 1 to 8) can be all identified by an underscore to the plate number and in the case of plate 30, also by the addition of the systematic reference number 283. The text was also comprehensively rewritten and reset with changes to nomenclature that caused later taxonomists some confusion since the dates on the plates were left unchanged. Parts 9 to 30 were reset and reprinted without material alteration. Parts 31 to 192 were printed as an expansion to the first edition printing and are, therefore, indistinguishable.

John Curtis made the comment to his friend James Dale, that the cost of colouring the plates had "exceeded £3,000" (2017 equivalent: £345,000 or US.$431,000). Each plate and the accompanying text was sold at 1/6d. coloured, or 6d. uncoloured, bringing the total cost of a complete, coloured set to £57 15s.6d. (2017 equivalent: £6,645 or US.$8,305).

Surviving Copies:

As at 31st January 2017, of the known, surviving bound sets, one is held at The British Library but is reportedly incomplete and in generally poor condition; another at the Natural History Museum, London, is now also incomplete; another at The Smithsonian is in generally good condition but is incorrectly bound, lacks 117 plates with 3 plates uncoloured; an apparently complete set of first edition plates and text, systematically arranged and bound in contemporary covers is held by Kings College, London but exhibits the effects of poor storage in the past. A near pristine, complete, correctly and systematically arranged copy in contemporary binding, comprising proof quality, first edition plates throughout (formerly with T.H.T. Hopkins at Magdalen College, Oxford) is in private ownership. A complete, 16 volume set is held by Melbourne Museum but it's condition and make-up is not known. This is probably Curtis's own copy. All other known copies are made-up from plates taken from the first and second editions and with lithographed substitutes making up the many shortfalls. This situation is essentially unchanged since 1911 when Sherborn and Durrant of The Entomological Society of London could locate only one properly complete copy free of reprints and lithographed replacements. In 1947 Richard E. Blackwelder investigated the five principal copies held in the United States, the result of his enquiries was published by The Smithsonian as the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Volume 107, Number 5, entitled "The Dates and Editions of Curtis' British Entomology". All five copies examined by Blackwelder were found to be made-up sets that included a number of lithographed copy plates. Thus, only two, or perhaps three, complete, original, first edition copies are known to exist.

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