British Insects

DELTA Home

L. Watson and M. J. Dallwitz

Notes on John Curtis’s British Entomology (1824–1840)

The ‘British Insects’ suite of Intkey packages was originally intended mainly to present scans of the fine hand-coloured engravings of insects in John Curtis’s British Entomology: illustrations and descriptions of the genera of insects found in Great Britain and Ireland (1824–1840). The first 12 volumes of the first edition (up to 1835) were directly available to us, along with 1862 compilations comprising all the Hymenoptera, Hemiptera and “smaller groups” (see References). The ‘missing’ plates and text for Lepidoptera issued between 1836 and 1840 were covered by adapting scans from The Biodiversity Library, and the complete work has now been completed courtesy of Martin Halley of http://www.restoredprints.com, who painstakingly photographed for us all the plates and text subsequent to 1835 dealing with Coleoptera.

In Curtis’s splendid work, insects chosen to represent all the genera then recognised as ‘British’ are portrayed each on a full-page plate, with detailed representations of critical morphological characters. In addition, “as it is absolutely necessary in order to collect insects with complete success, to be acquainted with our native plants”, each insect is accompanied by an appropriate plant. (The beautifully represented botanical component is widely employed in our Families of Flowering Plants package.)

The original Curtis Plate numbers are cited in the Intkey displays of the taxon images, and scans are also included of his accompanying legends and text. The latter attest to astonishing standards of observation achieved with primitive optical equipment and dim lighting; to the meticulous, properly comparative taxonomic descriptive technique applied by Curtis in the early nineteenth century; and to the excellent understanding of comparative morphology, and the sound classificatory principles which were in evidence by that date. In particular, they belie the widely held notion that the later advent of phylogenetic considerations had a beneficial, revolutionary impact on routine taxonomic methodology and classificatory practice, at least until the application of nucleic acid sequencing towards the end of the twentieth century. See, for example, Curtis’s agonizing in quite modern terms over the relationships of Acentria, a Caddis-like insect now placed in the Lepidoptera-Pyralidae, and in the same family, the stress laid by him on the need to account for vestigial features when assessing the relationships of Aglossa; or in the Coleoptera, the discussions of classificatory methodology accompanying Emus hirtus in the Staphylinidae, Trox sabulosus in the Trogidae, and Blaps lethifera in the Tenebrionidae. British Entomology includes 7 genera and 37 species of Caddis Flies first described by Curtis which are still recognised in British lists, and anybody wanting evidence of the early application of quite esoteric characters featured in modern taxonomic classifications and keys need only compare his descriptions of them with recent accounts. His treatment of Agrypnia pagetana (B. Ent. 540) is even accompanied by generic keys to the larvae and adults of British Trichoptera, adapted from those of ‘M. Pictet’, both of which use the same main characters emphasized by modern specialists.

It would be pretentious to cite nomenclatural authorities across the board in these packages, even if we were in a position to do so properly; but for general interest, binomials and generic names accepted in modern check lists and attributed there to Curtis are indicated with the taxon illustrations, with his name in parentheses denoting later transference of species to different genera. Further nomenclatural comments, which should not be taken as authoritative, are sometimes included in the ‘Notes’ accompanying the opening ‘legend+text’ images. No attempt is made here to indicate the numerous Curtis names now reduced to synonymy, many of which can be seen on the pages reproduced here. That some of them will be resurrected in the future, however, is suggested by the histories of two of his geometrid lepidopteran genera, Macaria and Charissa. Both were reduced to synonyms (the former in Semiothisa, the latter in Gnophos) early in the twentieth century by taxonomists with the benefits of supposed phylogenetic insights, but have since been reinstated (see Bradley, 2000).

In fact, British Entomology contains hundreds of original (type) descriptions of genera and species, by Curtis himself, or attributed by him at least partly to collaborators (notably J.C. Dale, A.H. Haliday and Francis Walker) whom he unambiguously credited as joint authors. The nomenclatural authority for the taxa involved is often cited in modern checklists simply as ‘Curtis’, but occasionally as (e.g.) ‘Haliday in Curtis’. The international rules of nomenclature, cross referenced with works inaccessible to us, presumably provide justifications of sorts for the seeming inconsistencies; but it is sad that the international code of practice, so exasperatingly pedantic in other respects, operates without regard to the clearly expressed intentions of the taxonomists concerned. The numerous cases evident in Curtis’s magnum opus are well exemplified by two beetles, check-listed as Trixagus obtusus Curtis and Micropeplus tesserula Curtis. In B. Ent. 163, Curtis clearly represents Westwood as a joint author of the former, even going so far as to present his diagnostic description in quotes; and in B. Ent. 204, M. tesserula is unambiguously credited to his friend and collaborator Haliday, being presented on the first page as M. tesserula Hal. MSS, and on the second as M. tesserula Hal., Nobis (i.e., placing Haliday’s name before his own).

The other side of human interrelationships is apparent in the deteriorating relations between Curtis and the other influential British entomologist of his day, J.F. Stephens, who progresses from respected colleague and collaborator in 1826 to despised rival in 1835. The extremes can be seen in the Lepidoptera data set, under Geometridae (Macaria) and Pyralidae (Nascia ciliaris), with an intermediate state of starchy disapproval in the intriguing, 1830 account of the now extinct Euclemensia woodiella in the Momphidae. Such refreshingly honest expressions of heartfelt feelings tend nowadays to be moderated or removed altogether by editorial intervention, which will deny future historians useful insights into the way science is actually pursued.

Among the curiosities to be found in these pages is the original taxonomic description of a rather conspicuous moth, Trichiocercus sparshalli. The male specimen described by Curtis in B. Ent. 336 was donated by Joseph Sparshall Esq., who had captured it ‘in a lane near Horning, early in the morning of the 7th of August, 1829, ... resting on the trunk of an elm tree, he believes’. According to Bradley (2000), it remains the only British record of this species, and of its genus, which is actually an Australian one! Mr. Sparshall also provided the specimen of a still more spectacular moth, illustrated in B. Ent. 7 and later presented to the British Museum. This represents the mainland-European Pine Lappet, Dendrolimus pini, taken ‘in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, 22nd July 1809’. The species was not recorded again in Britain for nearly 200 years, but it has been found three times since 1989 (twice in Guernsey, once in the Isle of Wight, and once, in the larval state only, in Essex: see Bradley, 2000). These recent records offer some support for Mr. Sparshall’s reputation, but one still wonders about a conspicuously patterned, perhaps alien cerambycid beetle featured in B. Ent. 199, which was ‘found alive last year upon a window by a gentleman in Norwich, and was given to Mr. Sparshall’, to whom Curtis is ‘indebted for the opportunity of making a drawing of it’. The Pine Lappet story also involves a Mr. Plastead, who gave Curtis one of unspecified provenance, and who later provided specimens of two problematic butterflies captured ‘on the borders of Ashdown Forest’ (see B. Ent. 205 and 205*). He appears again in connection with the impressive North American hawk-moth presented in B. Ent. 195, of which ‘a pair were taken by Mr. Thomson (a friend of Mr. Plastead’s), the 28th August 1796, at West Cowes’. This apparently remains the only British record of a species which is nowadays euphemistically tagged as an ‘adventive’. ‘The cabinet of Mr. Plastead’ also provided the only recorded British specimen of a pretty Asian noctuid moth, supposedly taken ‘nearly thirty years back’ at Brixton, Surrey. Depicted in B. Ent. 276 and still fondly known as the Brixton Beauty, it remains in the latest British check list, tagged as a ‘probable adventive’. A related moth species, Acontia caloris Hübner, is also listed in B. Ent. 276, on the strength of ‘the only known British specimen’. This too was obtained by Curtis ‘from the Cabinet of Mr. Plastead’, having been ‘taken, I believe, in the neighbourhood of London’. By contrast with that of the Brixton Beauty, this record seems subsequently to have been either overlooked or discounted.

E.B. Ford, in his inimitable Butterflies, drew attention to the negligence of early collectors in failing to label specimens with their provenance and date of capture. Curtis himself was not remiss in this respect, in that his collection is cross-referenced with diaries containing detailed data on the specimens; but British Entomology is replete with absurdly vague references to collection dates and localities of specimens, apparently accepted uncritically by him and his colleagues as ‘British’. The existence of an extensive and lucrative market in the early nineteenth century for supposedly British insects, especially Lepidoptera, is evident from the frequent references to dealers (B. Ent. 12, 169, 201, 264, etc.), from whom they often obtained specimens. Many of the latter, such as the Senta flammea of B. Ent. 201, were probably genuinely British captures of rare immigrants or casual introductions; but while some habitats and regions of the British Isles remained relatively inaccessible and entomologically unexplored, and previously undetected insects were still being encountered on quite a large scale, it was surely naïve in the extreme to overlook the likelihood of commercial enterprise sometimes taking the form of fraud. Perhaps Curtis, who in his youth had supplemented his own income by collecting and selling insects to more affluent enthusiasts, simply failed to appreciate that others might be less scrupulous; in any event, publication of misinformation directly or indirectly attributable to wishful thinking, the desire for professional advancement or monetary greed, remains a problem in science to this day.

On a more positive note, the wide ranging biological details recorded in the pages of British Entomology document copious, sound and original observations by Curtis and his correspondents, and being expressed in the delightfully relaxed style of that bygone age, they make for excellent reading. Indeed, the number and variety of correspondents who contributed specimens, along with observations which he renders into very readable and often entertaining prose, is quite remarkable. As well as famous academics such as the botanist John Lindley, and the expected naturalist clerics, including such well known figures as Rev. F.O. Morris, he generously acknowledges the contributions of various aristocrats, exemplified by Lady Blake, who collected plants used for some of the illustrations. More interestingly, he thanks numerous members of the public at large. The latter include Miss Hill, who ‘first discovered’ the chrysomelid beetle Phyllobrotica quadrimaculata ‘near Richmond’; and very notably, he regularly acknowledges an experimentally inclined, lower-case ‘lady’ specializing in Diptera, who forwarded specimens of the little Cheese-fly, Piophila casei, which she had raised from larvae ‘that had had absolutely no other food than powdered rhubarb’; sent him specimens of Phytomyza nigra, hatched from pupae she had found under Columbine leaves; and also corroborated his earlier, published ‘conjecture respecting the oeconomy of Tephritis’, by rearing ‘several examples of T. arctii, having obtained their pupae, the middle of last October, from the calyx of a variegated ... Centaurea cyanus growing in her garden’. If these references do indeed refer to the same ‘lady’, the anonymity may have been at her own request, given that her unladylike interests also involved raising flies from dung. It may also have been she, in the role of coleopterist, who successfully reared Elm Bark beetles ‘from larvae found in January’; thus contributing to Curtis’s erudite discussion of the ‘oeconomy’ of that pest, recently of course accessory to the tragic destruction of elm trees throughout Britain (see B. Ent. 43, with his detailed suggestions for its control).

Finally, Curtis’s text provides salutary reminders of day-to-day living conditions in the early nineteenth century. Thus, readers of his recommendation in B. Ent. Folio 569 (1835) that citizens should proof their homes against Bed-bugs (‘few dwellings in London are free from this loathsome insect’) by washing the walls, floors, woodwork and bedsteads (‘except where there are metallic moldings’) with a solution of corrosive sublimate (‘which has not so unpleasant a scent as turpentine, and is, I think, even more efficacious’), may be surprised to learn that Curtis survived to produce another major work, his Farm Insects, 25 years later.

With an irony to match Britain’s acquisition of the priceless Linnaean collections from Sweden in the previous century, John Curtis’s insect collection was purchased in 1862 on behalf of the National Museum of Victoria. It was packed in zinc-lined cabinets and transported to Australia, where it remains to this day, complete with the hand-written diaries containing his detailed notes on the individual specimens. Information on it, along with much interesting biographical information on Curtis himself, can be seen on the Museum Victoria Web site (http://www.museum.vic.gov.au/history/insects1.html); and additional biographical detail is provided by H. Cahill (2006) at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/iss/library/speccoll/bomarch/bomjan06.html.

Biographical note on John Curtis

John Curtis was born in Norwich in 1791. His father was an engraver (though seemingly unrelated to the famous William Curtis of the Botanical Magazine), and his mother was described as a ‘cultivator of flowers’. From age sixteen, while working for a local solicitor, he commenced learning the art of scientific illustration while supplementing his income by collecting and selling insect specimens to the gentlemen entomologists of the day. In 1817 he moved to London, where he met Sir Joseph Banks and other leading ‘natural historians’, and his first published illustrations appeared in Kirby and Spence’s authoritative Introduction to Entomology (1815–26). John Curtis may well have been the first entomologist to earn a living, albeit a rather poor one, as a scientist. He liked to travel, and although it proved difficult because of his financial problems, he collected extensively in Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe. An expedition in 1825 exemplified the level of his enthusiasm and entomological industry. He journeyed to Scotland by steam packet and returned by land, walking most of the way home and collecting insect specimens. The latter included thirty-two species representing additions to the British list.


Contents