Cymraeg

We met in the Museum’s car park, not quite knowing what to expect. Our 50+ Group had been asked if we fancied cataloguing more than a thousand books from the library at the Oakdale Workmen’s Institute as part of the re-interpretation of the building and all four of us had been intrigued by the request.

Sioned greeted us with a warm welcome and we were taken to the library in the ‘new’ building to meet Richard, the librarian. And so began five extremely enjoyable Thursdays.

The books had been packed into boxes and our task was to fill the spreadsheets with name, author and publication date. We noted the condition of the book and if it had come from another library or institute (e.g. Nantymoel or Aberkenfig).

Delving into each box, not knowing what we might discover, was like plunging into a box of chocolates. Mining and engineering books were obviously very popular in Lewis Merthyr Library – were they borrowed by young men keen to further their careers? There were many books on mathematics, science and architecture – all well-used according to the date stamps on page three. And then there were novels by popular authors like Jane Austen, Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens – read and enjoyed in a time before television and computers. A few books, with risqué titles, were obviously well-thumbed and our work stopped as we contemplated why they appeared to be more popular than ‘Advanced Algebra’ or ‘Modern Mechanics’.

It was a fascinating insight into a random selection of books, some dating back to the 1870s, and we are so grateful to the Museum for including us in this work. Richard was on hand to answer questions and solve mysteries – why did so many Welsh preachers write books about themselves? Who bought them? And who decided to write ‘The Life of the White Ant’ (and did anyone ever read it)?

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our five days ‘work’, have learnt new skills, met lovely people and, also, become better acquainted after visiting all of the eateries in the Museum for lunch. If there’s any more volunteering on offer – please put our names on this list.

The re-interpretation of Oakdale Workmen’s Institute is supported by the Armed Forces Community Covenant Grant Scheme.

Often, people announce - with a knowing look in their eye – that Science knows more of the surface of the moon than it does of the deep oceans of our own planet. This platitude is probably vague enough to be considered accurate, but it ignores a salient fact about Earth: a lot more is happening here, especially in the oceans, and even the smallest sample of abyssal mud contains a wealth of life sufficient for years of study. Oceanographic missions are rare because each one produces a superabundance of data and specimens that require decades of work to describe and interpret. The simple problem of man-hours and scarcity of expertise in niche fields is what limits the scope of modern oceanography (and the funding available to it).

Blue-sky thinking

The index case for this problem was that of the Challenger expedition of 1872-76, a sprawling endeavor to “investigate the physical conditions of the deep sea in the great ocean basins” - scarcely has an expedition brief been bolder or more vague – with a navy vessel and a small group of gentleman-scientists headed by Charles Wyville Thomson. Wyville Thomson had headed earlier voyages to chart the waters around the British Isles, discovering life down to depths of 1200 metres; he had become the patriarch of the nascent discipline of oceanography, which – before Challenger – was limited to a hazy understanding that a lot of the oceans were very deep indeed. The vessel set out with a complement of around 250 men of all ranks and stations, weighing anchor in Portsmouth in December 1872 and zigzagging down the Atlantic coast of Europe before striking out towards the Caribbean. She would sail on for almost eighty thousand miles, crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic before swooping down to the sub Antarctic Kerguelen archipelago, circling Australia and the Pacific, and finally passing through the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America on her way home.

A challenging legacy

This, however, is not the end of the story. On her voyage, the Challenger measured depth and temperature and collected biota, samples of living organisms from the sea floor, at 360 stations along the route of her voyage. The vessel was fitted with a fully-equipped laboratory, and vast volumes of specimens, data, and readings were amassed during the three years at sea; sediment samples sealed in meticulously-labelled bottles and countless specimens steeped in alcohol, volumes upon volumes of log-books and charts, water samples, and photographic negatives. There is a limit to the amount of useful scientific study that can be done by half-a-dozen scientists on a ship, so the massed volume of potential information was stored for the journey before being distributed across the country upon the ship’s return, each major grouping of specimens going to an organisation or individual most proficient in the study of that given group. Thus began the process of documentation, interpretation, and publication which follows any respectable scientific endeavour; but from the start it was fraught with difficulty, and the project would outstrip the length of the voyage six fold in terms of years spent upon it.

Tome after tome…

The grandly-titled ‘Report of the Scientific Results of the Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the Years 1873-76’, and its associated texts, started trickling from the presses almost as soon as the ship returned to port, but publication would drag on across fifty volumes and more than 29,500 pages. These shelves of heavy tomes contained the distilled data of the expedition, beautifully illustrated with hand-coloured lithographs depicting the litany of species which described as new to science. Wyville Thomson oversaw the publications, but the stress of the project overwhelmed him and he withdrew in 1881, dying shortly afterwards. His place was taken by John Murray, his friend and fellow oceanographer on the voyage; the Report would not be completed until nineteen years after the Challenger docked, a vast, sprawling and prohibitively expensive manuscript which has yet to be matched in terms of vision, boldness and scope (and quite possibly cost) to this day. In the current climate of meandering austerity and profit-motivated science, it seems inconceivable that such a dedicated blue-skies expedition, and the years of follow-up, could be mounted in the 21st century; modern oceanography exists as a passenger, travelling alongside the oil industry and the world’s navies, everywhere studying the workings of nature through the lens of humanity’s impact upon it.

Echoes of Challenger

Echoes of Challenger appear everywhere in the study of samples from the deep ocean. Besides the heavy, leather-bound volumes that sit in the Mollusca Library at the Museum, the Ted Phorson collection which I’m currently working on contains swathes of sub-millimetre-sized mollusc shells (and other, stranger things) sampled from the North Atlantic by a remote vehicle (R.V.) designated vessel named Challenger, and Phorson himself worked on some of Charles Wyville Thomson’s still-unsorted specimens in the late 1970s, almost a hundred years on from when they were first collected. Modern scientific literature on the fauna of the deep oceans refers frequently to the Challenger Report, as so few works have tackled these organisms at the same level of detail since, and it seems unlikely that the oceanographers of the future will be able to; the days of the explorers are surely long gone. It is easy to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the scientific buccaneers of Challenger and, before it, the Beagle voyage – free from want for time and money, invested not with a desire for the wealth of nature, nor with a noble wish to save the oceans from man’s depredations, but instead willing to cast themselves out into the boundless wastes of the sea in search of the heady drug of knowledge, a pure and stupefying substance that raises one above the clouds, denied to us pragmatic, modern mortals. It is comforting to think of the vast mines of secrets that remain undreamt amid the vastness of the abyss, waiting for the explorers of the far future to uncover. Perhaps it is just as well that the days of the old sojourners are over, for now – after all, they have left the better part of their work undone.

We recently participated in #MuseumCats Day on Twitter and this involved a quick search through our holdings for some interesting pictures of cats to Tweet and what a gem we have found! Please enjoy this selection of wonderful and [in some cases] bizarre illustrations of cats from the book "Our Cats and all about them" written and illustrated by Harrison Weir in 1889. 

My personal favourites are the surreal disembodied heads [see above], "Sylvie" [she of the magnificent moustaches] and the Russian cat who [in my opinion] has a most unsettling human expression.


Weir was a very interesting character; he was born in 1824 on May 5th [d.1906], and is known as "The Father of the Cat Fancy”. He organizied the first ever cat show in England, at The Crystal Palace, London in July 1871 where he and his brother served as judges. In 1887 he founded the National Cat Club and was its first President and Show Manager until his resignation in 1890. Our Cats was the first published pedigree cat book.

Weir was employed, for many years, as a draughtsman and engraver for the Illustrated London News as well as many other publications and in his lifetime he both wrote and illustrated other books such as The Poetry of Nature (1867), Every Day in the Country (1883) and Animal Studies, Old and New (1885). In 1845 he exhibited his first painting at the British Institution and during his career he was an occasional exhibitor at the Royal Academy.

He was a keen animal fancier, an experienced breeder of cats, carrier pigeons, and poultry and for thirty years often acted as a judge at the principal pigeon and poultry shows. In 1903 he wrote and illustrated the exhaustive book Our Poultry and All About Them.

More information on Harrison Weir via the following links: 

http://www.harrisonweir.com/ 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrison_Weir 

http://www.nationalcatclub.co.uk/History.htm

This book was bequeathed to the Library back in May 1916 along with around 500 other books by the Welsh artist, champion of Wales’ cultural heritage and one of the founding fathers of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Thomas Henry Thomas.

Along with the books, Thomas also bequeathed his entire catalogue of prints, drawings and watercolours to the Museum.

More information on Thomas Henry Thomas here:

http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/rhagor/article/2035/

The illustration above appeares in the Chapter "Performing cats". Other chapters include, "Cats as tormentors", "Dead cats", "Fishing cats" and "Lovers of cats" [would you believe... Cardinal Richelieu?].

This book is available to view electronically via the following Project Gutenberg link:

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35450/35450-h/35450-h.htm#Page_37

Biographical information on Harrison Weir taken from Wikipedia.

All photographs in this post taken by the author.

 

Well now, here’s  a pretty thing…

A souvenir booklet celebrating the fifty year reign of Queen Victoria. It was published in 1887 by Eyre & Spottiswoode, who were the official printers to Her Majesty at that time.

Our volunteer [Alison] has been working her way through old pamphlet boxes and all manner of forgotten things and very kindly passes to me items that are interesting, unusual or just lovely to see, and this one falls into that last category.

It measures 11 x 13.5 cm, has 16 pages and, our accessions register states that it was donated to us in May 1935 by a Mr Charles Barnwell Esq.

The book also contains a poem written by Lord Tennyson especially for the occasion. Tennyson had been Poet Laureate since 1850 [after William Wordsworth's death] and held the position until his own death in 1892.

Interestingly, Eyre & Spottiswoode [established in 1845], went on to merge with Methuen Publishing in the 1970s.

All photographs in this post taken by the author.

The following photographs are from the book, Twelve new designs of English butterflies, by Benjamin Wilkes [published in 1742]. This rare work consists solely of twelve engraved plates each depicting geometric arrangements of both butterflies and moths. Wilkes produced this profoundly beautiful work as member of the Aurelian Society. Aurelian is an archaic word for lepidopterist [one who is interested in butterflies]; the term is derived from aurelia, meaning chrysalis, and relates to the golden colour it may attain just before the butterfly emerges.

The Society of Aurelians [London], one of the oldest organized bodies of specialists in any branch of zoology. The group collected and documented insects from the 1690s but came to an abrupt end in March 1748. While members of the society were in a meeting in the Swan Tavern, a great fire broke out  in Cornhill and enveloped them. All the members escaped, but their entire collection, library, and records were destroyed. This event was documented by Moses Harris in The Aurelian; or, Natural History of English Insects (1765). The loss disheartened the group so much that they never managed to regroup again…Aurelian societies were formed several times in Britain [most notable 1762 and 1801], but each time they collapsed.

…Benjamin Wilkes was an 18th-century artist and naturalist whose profession was 'painting of History Pieces and Portraits in Oil'. When a friend invited him to a meeting of the Aurelian Society, where he first saw specimens of butterflies and moths, he became convinced that nature would be his 'best instructor' as to colour and form in art. He began to study entomology spending his leisure time collecting, studying and drawing the images larvae, pupae and parasitic flies of Lepidoptera, assisted by the collector Mr Joseph Dandridge. Wilkes' own collection was kept 'against the Horn Tavern in Fleet Street' London 'Where any gentleman or lady' could see his collection of insects [Wikipedia].

 

 

Our  holdings of other Aurelian books include:

The English Lepidoptera: or, the Aurelian's pocket companion: containing a catalogue of upward of four hundred moths and butterflies ... / Moses Harris [1775]

 The aurelian. a natural history of English moths and butterflies, together with the plants on which they feed. Also .../ Moses Harris [1766]

 English moths and butterflies… Benjamin Wilkes [1749] This work ran to three editions of which the last, incorporating Linnaean nomenclature, was published in 1824

 The British Aurelian:  twelve new designs of British Butterflies and Directions for making a collection, with an essay by R.S. Wilkinson / Benjamin Wilkes, R.S. Wilkinson [1982]

All photographs in this post taken by the author