A Beautiful, Hand-Painted Caterpillar Manuscript

June 14, 2023

A Beautiful, Hand-Painted Caterpillar Manuscript

The intersection of art and science is one of my favourite areas to explore, and this manuscript on caterpillars (now sold) is a fantastic example of the types of things I look for. It was made in Northamptonshire, primarily between 1887 and 1896 (with additions up to 1938), and contains 137 pages of original observations on local caterpillars illustrated with artistically accomplished watercolours made to scale.

Close-up of a delicate watercolour of a green inch-worm type of caterpillar on the stem of a green leaf.

Notes in natural history manuscripts are often copied from authoritative sources, but in this case the observations are unusually original and thoughtful, with only occasional references to sources. For instance, a beautiful painting of a privet hawk moth caterpillar (Sphinx ligustri) is accompanied by the note: “I found a large number of these caterpillars feeding on Privet at Wellingboro’. I noticed that all of them were on the West side of the hedges so that they caught the full light of the sun. This seemed to me rather peculiar as the sun shining on the white stripes made them very conspicuous, and the green colour of the caterpillars is much brighter than the leaf of privet by reflected light, whereas it is very similar to the colour of the leaf with the light shining through it, so that if the caterpillars had been on the East side they would have been much more difficult to see”.

Close-up of a page of elegant manuscript text surrounding a detailed watercolour painting of a fat, white and grub-like caterpillar with black spots that is curled around so that the head is close to the tail.

There are also thirty-three pages on parasitic wasps, with detailed physical descriptions and greatly magnified pencil and ink drawings of the adults, as well as eggs and larvae. These all appear to be attempts at identification, as the focus is on the types of minute physical details necessary to differentiate species. The specimens were probably obtained from caterpillars being raised in captivity, and the author usually indicates which species they emerged from. This is particularly unusual for amateur nature journals, and indicates a high level of scientific enquiry was being pursued.

Close-up of a pencil and black ink illustration of a parasitic wasp, greatly magnified and with minute details made clear.

The likely compiler of this manuscript was Eustace Frederic Wallis, whose name appears in the front of this book together with that of a Bruce Wallis we have no identified. He was a partner in the Wallis Brothers photographic firm of Kettering, which was known for its successful lines of shutters, daylight changing film plates, and Penna hand camera (historiccamera.com), and his name and that of his brother Percy are on a U.S. patent for a photographic shutter (patent no. 627.026, filed March 27th, 1899).