The Auckland Museum Library has a fascinating collection of old books, many which have been bequeathed to us. A strong subject area is natural science.
These books are not only interesting for recording scientific developments and discoveries, but for the structure of the books themselves: how information was presented, shared and built upon, and the illustrated plates, often aesthetically beautiful and as important as the text for description and identification. This is particularly true of books on conchology. Many of these are rare due to the age of publication, but some also appear to be the only copy held in a New Zealand library.
Shell collecting and study has a long history, with the earliest significant writings on molluscs attributed to Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Large collections of shells were formed, particularly during and after the 17th century, for scientific study or for admiration.
Many were collected during European expeditions and voyages of discovery across the globe where unusual and unknown zoological and botanical specimens were bought back for western audiences. A comprehensive network of dealers developed, including influential conchologists and taxonomists corresponding, purchasing and exchanging specimens and collections.
Many of these people had connections with New Zealand and Australia during the mid 19th-20th century. They included Canadian E N Drier, English-born Tom Iredale (Conchologist at the Australian Museum, Sydney from 1924-1944), Tasmanian-born W R B Oliver ( Dominion Museum, Wellington, from 1920-1947), Englishman J R le B Tomlin (British Museum, London, from 1916-1948) and New Zealander A W B Powell at the Auckland Museum.
Emanuel Mendes da Costa's books
The first time the word 'conchology' appeared in print was 1771 in Emanuel Mendes da Costa's and G Humphrey's illustrated book Conchology, or Natural History of Shells (London: Printed Anonymously).
In 1776, da Costa, an English botanist and naturalist, wrote Elements of conchology (London: Printed for Benjamin White), which can be found in the Auckland Museum Library, and which features 'seven plates, containing figures of every genus of shells', produced as foldout copperplate engravings. The use of copperplate engraving, which continued well into the 19th century, afforded finer detail and elegance than previous printing methods such as woodcuts.
G B Sowerby's Thesaurus conchyliorum
Another important publication is Thesaurus conchyliorum, or Monographs of genera of shells, edited by G B Sowerby. The work was a slow production, compiled between 1847-1887, and involved three Sowerby generations to complete (George Brettingham Sowerby, 1788-1854; George Brettingham Sowerby Junior, 1812-1884; and George Brettingham Sowerby, 1843-1921). Much of the work was based on the collections of English collector and traveller Hugh Cuming (1791-1865).
The Auckland Museum Library's copy consists of 5 volumes in 7 parts, in Boston Society of Natural History binding (now the Museum of Science, Boston), featuring their stamp on the title page of each volume. Our copies have half red leather binding, and either black and white or brown and cream marbled boards. The thesauri feature remarkable colour lithograph illustrations of slightly varying styles depending on the Sowerby involved. The shells were mostly drawn and coloured from collections held in Europe, such as the British Museum. The origin country of the specimen is recorded, where known, and various New Zealand shells are mentioned.
A W B Powell's books
Many of the Auckland Museum Library’s books may have been collected during the time of A W B Powell. Arthur William Baden Powell was a commercial artist and lithographer from 1918-1929. He acted as Honorary Conchologist to the Auckland Museum, before being appointed as Conchologist and Palaeontologist at the Museum in 1929. Powell became Assistant Director in 1936 until his retirement in 1968, and then acted as Honorary Research Associate in Mollusca until his death in 1987. Powell produced numerous reports, papers and publications on natural science. One example is The shellfish of New Zealand (Auckland: The Unity Press, 1937). Although not a particularly rare publication in New Zealand, it's interesting for how it displays a variety of ways of capturing these specimens in image, including colour prints, black and white line drawings and photographs.
J R le B Tomlin's donations
A number of conchology books donated to Auckland Museum came from J R le B Tomlin. John Reed le Brockton Tomlin was born in 1864 in Nottinghamshire, England and assisted in the molluscs collection at the British Museum between 1916-1948. He was one of the founders of the Malacological Society of London and was twice president of the Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland. He wrote numerous papers, named many taxa of new molluscs and collected an immense shell collection. Following the transfer of fellow collector James Melvill's shells to Tomlin in 1919, the combined Melvill-Tomlin collection was the largest, most complete and most valuable in the world. Tomlin passed away in 1954 and bequeathed to the Auckland Museum Library a "number of molluscan works, including some rare early ones", as stated in the annual report of the Auckland Institute and Museum, 1955-56 (page 30) by the librarian Enid A Evans.
This includes da Costa's Elements of conchology and an intriguing volume entitled Martyn’s universal conchologist. Thomas Martyn published his two volume work The universal conchologist in London in 1789, based on the some of the shells collected during Cook's third voyage.
There is some mystery surrounding our volume (place, publisher and date unknown), which was presented to the Library by Tomlin and it has been surmised that he was the creator and artist of the illustrations, copying from Martyn's work. The volume consists of hand-coloured illustrated plates of shells mounted onto dark blue leaves, lightly annotated in pencil, and with various blank or annotated pages and some loose cut outs of un-coloured line drawn shells. It features a cut out from what seems to be an original title page and contents notes which, as well as the spine title, identifies it as related to Martyn's work.
There are many more interesting books in our Reserve collections of historic, scientific and artistic interest. Colour photographs in modern publications are fantastic for identification of shells and molluscs now, and line drawings are very important for detailed description. These older books also help us to appreciate the history of conchology and the popularity of shells with the wealthy collectors of the past, as well as the artistic styles of the time.
The Auckland Museum Library's collections can be searched with various keywords - mollusks, molluscs (US and NZ spellings), shells, conchology.
Cite this article
Rare books and conchology. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 May 2015. Updated: 12 November 2019.