By Krista Stracka ~
As Spring gets underway in the Northern Hemisphere and the days grow warmer, a range of brightly colored butterflies and moths will begin to emerge from overwintering and flutter about the sky. Published in 1720, Eleazar Albin’s A Natural History of English Insects includes one hundred vibrantly colored plates that capture the lifecycle of these creatures “curiously engraven from life.” Albin, a naturalist and artist, recounts in the preface how he developed an interest in plants and insects through his work as a teacher of drawing and painting in watercolors as well as his network of connections that led to the book’s publication and popularity. During the summer of 1918, the National Library of Medicine acquired this author presentation copy bound in gilt-tooled red goatskin. On this final day of Women’s History Month, we’re looking at the names of the women within its pages who were involved in the scientific network during the eighteenth century as patrons, subscribers, collectors, and more.
The work to print and engrave a book like this would have been too costly endeavor for Albin to cover alone, especially with the large family he supported. The book was published by subscription through the patronage of gardener and botanist Mary Somerset, Dowager Duchess of Beaufort who had commissioned Albin to paint butterflies and moths for her. As Michael A. Salmon stated in The Aurelian Legacy (2000), the “first collectors of entomology were women of high social standing” and included Somerset as one of two prominent individuals. Somerset encouraged Albin to create this book and through her patronage procured subscriptions from people in her exclusive network that he would not have had access to otherwise. The list at the start of the book contains the names of over 150 subscribers. Nearly 40 percent of the subscribers were women, including the book’s dedicatee, the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach (later queen of Great Britain). Work began in 1713 but was delayed due to slowed subscriptions after the death of Somerset in 1715.
The second person identified by Salmon as an early collector of entomological specimens was a previous owner of this copy: Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (née Cavendish-Harley), 2nd Duchess of Portland (1715–1785). Based on her ownership inscription of the title page verso (“Margaret Cavendish Harley”), she likely received this copy shortly before her marriage to William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland in 1734. In 1886, NLM acquired another book once owned and inscribed by Bentinck. In this copy of Samuel Garth’s The Dispensary: a Poem in Six Cantos (9th edition, 1726), she signed her name “Margaret Cavendish Harley, June 1733, Dover Street.” Located in London, the Dover Street residence was owned by her father, the bibliophile Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (1689–1741). As the only surviving daughter, she grew up surrounded by the books and manuscripts of his collection and developed an interest in the arts and sciences at a young age as well as a drive for collecting herself.
After she married, Margaret Bentinck moved to Bulstrode of Buckinghamshire, also known as “The Hive” in court circles due to the intense buzz of scientific and artistic activity that swarmed the property. With her high social status and immense wealth, Bentinck built an unrivalled natural history collection of shells, minerals, fossils, corals, and insects built through her connections within the scientific community and the purchase of specimens gathered during scientific and exploratory expeditions.
Margaret Bentinck’s deep knowledge of science gave her additional standing with prominent male scientists, and she took an active role in cataloging and classifying these specimens. In addition, she collected a team of experts that included the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander and English conchologist and botanist John Lightfoot who curated the Portland Museum at Bulstrode which was open to the public along with its menagerie, botanical gardens, and zoo. While also serving as her chaplain, Rev. Lightfoot (1735–1788) dedicated his Flora Scotica to Bentinck in 1777.
After Bentinck’s death in 1785, Lightfoot compiled an auction catalog of the Portland Museum which listed and described over 4000 items from her collections. In the introduction, he wrote that it was her “intention to have had every unknown species in the three kingdoms of nature described and published to the world.” The sale began on April 24th, 1786 and lasted 38 days beginning with shells and ending with the “Vase of Alexander Severus.” Although her copy of Albin’s A Natural History of English Insects was not included in the sale, twelve of Albin’s original drawings of spiders (entry 2623) and over two hundred of his original drawings of birds on vellum (entry 2809) were listed in the catalog.
After the success of his book on insects, Albin wrote and illustrated A Natural History of Birds (1731–1738). In this case, the woman who aided in this endeavor was his own daughter, Elizabeth, whom he had also taught to draw and paint “after the life.” Elizabeth engraved and hand-colored some of the book’s illustrations and was later recognized as the first woman to illustrate a book about birds.
The study of women’s book ownership and readership during the early modern period in particular is a growing field of interest. Research has already led to further insights into women’s reading practices, how women acquired books, the ranges of subjects in their collections, and more. Learn more at Early Modern Female Book Ownership and follow the conversation about #herbook.