Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection
Corporate Author: Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History)
Edited: PJP Whitehead and PI Edwards
London: BMNH, 1974. Limited Edition 41/400
John Reeves (1774 – 1856) was an English tea inspector for the British East India Company who spent several years in and around Canton. His impressions of China were not very favourable (‘…and we have been disputing for months past with the villainous Government of this vile country…’ he wrote to his sister in 1814); but this mood did not last and he soon developed an obvious enthusiasm for collecting Chinese animals and plants, though specimens from all over Asia appear in his collection.
An early 19th century Sir David Attenborough, Reeves was a keen naturalist. He took to documenting animals and plants and commissioned Chinese artists to paint them in the Western scientific tradition.
He sent living specimens of beautiful Chinese flowering plants back to England, and was responsible for the introduction of many attractive garden plants to the West, including chrysanthemums, azaleas and wisteria. His name, reevesii, was applied to nearly 30 species of animals, and a plant genus. .
Reeves’s son, John Russell Reeves, shared his father’s enthusiasm for natural history and eventually became a well-known naturalist in China for scientists in England. On John Russell’s death in 1877, his widow presented the drawings he had inherited from his father to the British Museum’s natural history department.
Twenty stunning selected drawings from the Reeves Chinese Collection, divided equally between animals and plants, made mostly on large sheets of cartridge paper, are reproduced in high quality in this beautiful volume. John Reeves lived to see the birth of photography – which made possible the collotype reproduction used here – but it is doubtful that his artists knew about cameras. Many of these pictures were not drawn from the subject and in some of the most delightful examples too much artistic licence has been taken. It must have been tricky to capture a realistic likeness while the animals moved about. In some cases the drawing is a composite of leaf, flower and fruit from three different plants grafted on to the same stem! Similarly, the insect drawings contain an amazing amount of detail and observation, but the insects are often purely imaginary. But it is perhaps for these reasons that these beautiful drawings both show what the actual animal looks like and provoke a response in humans.
The drawings are pleasing aesthetically and still important scientifically; almost two centuries later, they represent a real tribute to the energy of John Reeves of Canton and the skill of his artists.
Posted in Books, Special collections, Staff picks, Westminster Reference Library
Tagged art & design, Book of the Month, botanical Latin, botany, British Museum, China, Chinese, fauna, flora, insects, Jon Reeves, natural history
Happy 90th Birthday to broadcaster, naturalist and conservationist extraordinaire David Attenborough!
David Attenborough was born on 8 May 1926 (not long after the Queen) and must surely qualify as a ‘national treasure’, although it is a term he’d prefer us not to use. While those of us alive in 1979 probably have the groundbreaking TV series ‘Life on Earth’ imprinted on our brains, anyone looking to find out more about his life and work so far can find plenty to inform, amuse and intrigue them in Westminster Libraries.
Whether you’re interested in his days as a BBC senior manager (including being Controller of BBC Two and Director of Programming for BBC Television), as a natural history presenter and programme maker or his more recent conservation campaigns, you can find out more in the biographies available:
You can borrow DVDs of some of his many TV series and read the accompanying books, for example:
And if his work – along with that of the amazing BBC Natural History Unit – has awakened in you an interest in the natural world, which is of course his aim, you can explore your library for other great books (including ebooks – try the non-fiction Nature section):
You can also watch many of his TV documentaries, interviews (including his recent one with US President Obama) and lots of favourite clips on both YouTube and a special section of the BBC iPlayer – just search for ‘David Attenborough’, sit back and enjoy…
Amateur naturalists in search of London’s wildlife will find signposts in London’s libraries, wherein are informative and colourful guides to where to go and what to see.
London’s diverse animal habitats are engagingly surveyed in Watching wildlife in London by Marianne Taylor, Wild in London by David Goode, and Chris Packham’s wild side of town: getting to know the wildlife in our towns and cities. Fledgling naturalists can take flight with Urban Wildlife (Usborne Spotter’s Guide), Urban Wildlife Habitats by Barbara Taylor and Wild town: wildlife on your doorstep, by Mike Dilger.
The websites of the London Wildlife Trust and the London Natural History Society are packed with information on reserves, habitats, species, events and issues.
The opportunities for feeding and breeding attracts and sustains London’s animal populations. The story of those creatures who did not choose to make a home in the capital is evocatively told in Beastly London by Hannah Velten, an unsentimental, readable and well-researched account of “the heaving mass of animals that once lived on the street”.
Whilst unsentimental the book concludes with “a heartfelt apology to the animals with thanks for their forbearance …. for the exploitation they were subjected to, and the unnatural urban conditions they had to cope with”. Working with original sources and plentifully illustrated with contemporary drawings, prints and photographs, the author recounts the travails of the animals “used to feed Londoners, to transport them and their goods, to entertain them, to provide a livelihood for them [and] to provide sport and gambling opportunities”.
Itinerant dancing bear and dogs, 1828. Image property of Westminster City Archives.
Also documented are the changes in attitude which led to legislation to restrain animal maltreatment, with Acts to prevent cruelty to horses and cattle in 1822, to dogs in 1839, and against animal baiting and cockfighting in 1835 and 1849. The rise of animal welfare societies is recorded too, with the Society for the Protection of Animals being established in 1824 and Our Dumb Friends’ League (today Blue Cross) in 1897, the latter opening an animal hospital in Westminster in 1906, believed to be the first of its kind in the world.
Patients Awaiting Admission, Our Dumb Friends League Aniimal Hospital. Image property of Westminster City Archives.
Posted in Archives Centre, Books
Tagged animal hospital, animals, archives, bears, Blue Cross, dogs, habitats, history, local history, London, natural history, nature, Our Dumb Friends' League, RSPCA, Society for the Protection of Animals, urban, wildlife