Treasure of the Month: 'The universal conchologist'

In the seventeenth century, many members of the upper classes collected objects for 'cabinets of curiosities', amusing their guests with rare and unusual specimens of natural history. Shells were one of the most popular objects among collectors, and in the eighteenth century, as major voyages of discovery made available new and previously unrecorded species, these shells came to be studied in a more scientific way. One of the most beautiful products of this new scientific enthusiasm was Thomas Martyn's The universal conchologist (1789), a high quality publication intended for an elite and wealthy audience.

Martyn was present at the return of Cook's third voyage and bought two-thirds of the shells available for purchase for the large sum of 400 guineas. Rather than simply selling them on to wealthy collectors, however, he intended to produce an illustrated catalogue of all the shells of the world 'with a new systematic arrangement by the author'. Martyn's first difficulty was in finding artists experienced enough to make the detailed hand-coloured illustrations his book required. Despairing of obtaining enough artists with the proper skills, Martyn established at 10 Great Marlborough Street, Westminster, an 'Academy for Illustrating and Painting Natural History' where he trained ten young boys to produce the drawings he required.

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Such was Martyn's fanatical perfectionism that when seventy copies of the first two volumes of the work were ready, each containing forty plates, he declared them to be of poor quality and started again. Complete four-volume sets of The universal conchologist containing all 160 plates are extremely rare. The work is most commonly found as two volumes bound as one, with eighty plates illustrating the shells brought back from the voyages to the South Seas. Fryer's copy takes this form.

More about Thomas Martyn and The universal conchologist can be found in Found in Fryer: stories from the Fryer Library collection.

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Last updated:
11 January 2017