Her fam­ily and other an­i­mals

Clive Aslet de­lights in the en­to­mo­log­i­cal art of a pi­o­neer­ing 17th-cen­tury nat­u­ral­ist-ex­plorer

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

Gar­den­ers, look away now. There are cater­pil­lars in this ex­hi­bi­tion. They’re shown munch­ing their way through their food plants, marked by gap­ing holes in the leaves, but, just as ugly duck­lings can turn into beau­ti­ful swans (in the song, at least), so pa­pil­ionid lar­vae do some­times pro­duce ra­di­ant adults—the Menelaus blue mor­pho but­ter­fly, the idomeneus gi­ant owl but­ter­fly and ze­bra swal­low­tail but­ter­fly, as well as the some­what less am­bi­tiously named flan­nel moth and snout moth.

‘Clearly, cap­tive and dead spec­i­mens did not sat­isfy her’

These were the sub­ject of Maria Me­rian’s colour­ful stud­ies, a se­lec­tion of which is on show in The Queen’s Gallery at Holy­rood Palace in ed­in­burgh. Made in the decades ei­ther side of 1700, they were com­piled as books of en­grav­ings, although those in the royal Col­lec­tion come from a lux­ury set, lightly printed and then hand-coloured on vel­lum.

Me­rian her­self could not have been ac­cused of but­ter­fly ten­den­cies. To judge from the por­trait en­grav­ing, her knob­bly face re­sem­bled the cit­ron fruit on which she de­picts the mon­key slug moth and har­lequin bee­tle feast­ing. This is some­one who took joy in the won­ders of cre­ation, but dis­dained the van­i­ties of the world.

Born into an artis­tic fam­ily in Frank­furt—her fa­ther (who died when Me­rian was three) was a suc­cess­ful print­maker, her step-fa­ther a flower pain­ter— she mar­ried the wa­ter­colour pain­ter Jo­hann an­dreas Graff. By 1685, the mar­riage had bro­ken down and Me­rian en­tered a Labadist com­mu­nity, a group sub­scrib­ing to the teach­ings of Jean de Labadie, which preached self-de­nial.

When the com­mu­nity broke up six years later, Me­rian and her daugh­ters set­tled in am­s­ter­dam, then in its hey­day as a cen­tre of trade and in­tel­lec­tual ac­tiv­ity. The city was also home to some of the great­est botanists, col­lec­tors and flower painters of the age. The Labadists had con­nec­tions with suri­nam, the colony that a dutch fleet seized from the Bri­tish in 1667; as a re­sult, she had seen a num­ber of ex­otic crea­tures al­ready.

am­s­ter­dam in­tro­duced her to more, if only in the form of their skins: the un­con­vinc­ing pose of her tou­can, for ex­am­ple, sug­gests that she did not have a live one be­fore her when draw­ing it. Clearly, cap­tive and dead spec­i­mens did not sat­isfy her be­cause, in 1699, she her­self set out for suri­nam.

This would have been ex­tra­or­di­nary in it­self, given the primi- tive con­di­tions that Me­rian and her ac­com­pa­ny­ing daugh­ter, dorothea, would face there; the cli­mate was swel­ter­ing. But even more no­table was her method. Back to those cater­pil­lars: Me­rian did not merely ob­serve her in­sect sub­jects minutely, but showed them in the dif­fer­ent stages of their life cy­cle, to­gether with the plants that fed them.

she had al­ready de­vel­oped this ap­proach, pub­lish­ing a book

on in­sect me­ta­mor­pho­sis called (in trans­la­tion) The Won­der­ful Trans­for­ma­tion of Cater­pil­lars and their Par­tic­u­lar Plant

Nour­ish­ment in 1679, with a sec­ond vol­ume in 1683. Suri­nam opened a new vista of pos­si­bil­ity.

Al­ready fa­mil­iar with the Suri­nam toad, she could now show it in a habi­tat com­posed of shore­line pur­si­lane and be­come the first Euro­pean nat­u­ral­ist to de­scribe its man­ner of re­pro­duc­tion. The fe­male toad car­ries her fer­tilised eggs be­neath pock­ets of skin on her back; the eggs turn into tad­poles, then lit­tle toads, which, when large enough, break through the skin and swim away.

The melan­tho tiger­wing but­ter­fly is shown hav­ing made a hearty meal of the leaves of a sour guava, which is hardly sur­pris­ing given the size of the grub (Me­rian liked to show her sub­jects at life size when pos­si­ble). She re­jected the idea that the red spots on its black-and-white body are eyes, be­cause, if so, it could have seen food from be­hind, a phe­nom­e­non she had never ob­served.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, this aus­tere woman let her hair down. She en­joyed www.coun­trylife.co.uk eat­ing a ripe pineap­ple (as did the cater­pil­lar of the dido long­wing but­ter­fly), although some of the hairs stuck in her throat. And, oc­ca­sion­ally, she in­cluded an­i­mals just for the fun of it, such as the sky-blue rain­bow whip­tail lizard in her plate of the teucer owl but­ter­fly on a ba­nana. A spec­ta­cled caiman does bat­tle with a fan­tas­ti­cally red and curl­ing false co­ral snake: this was to have been one of a se­ries of plates of lizards, never com­pleted.

Did it puzzle the in­tensely re­li­gious Me­rian that the ex­otic crea­tures that she stud­ied with such fas­ci­na­tion are not men­tioned in Gen­e­sis? ‘Maria Me­rian’s But­ter­flies’ is at The Queen’s Gallery, Holy­rood Palace, Ed­in­burgh, un­til July 23 (030–3123 7306; www.roy­al­col­lec­tion.org.uk)

Branch of West In­dian Cherry with Achilles Mor­pho But­ter­fly (1702–3) shows the in­sect’s life­cy­cle

(1702–3)

Above left: Pineap­ple with Cock­roaches (1702–3). Above right: Cas­sava with White Pea­cock But­ter­fly and Young Golden Tegu

Com­mon or Spec­ta­cled Caiman with South Amer­i­can False Co­ral Snake (1705–10)

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