Sunday 5 December 2021

The Aurelian

 In the interests of research and my own aesthetic pleasure (always a winning combo), I recently bought a copy of the 1986 facsimile edition of Moses Harris's The Aurelian, or Natural History of English Insects; Namely, Moths and Butterflies, Together with the Plants on which they Feed. First published in 1766, this is the most charming, accomplished and beautiful butterfly book of the Georgian age – some might say, of any age, though of course the text reflects the limited entomological knowledge of its time. Our knowledge of Moses Harris is limited too – even the date of his death is unknown – but he describes himself as a 'Painter who has made this Part of Natural History his Study and has bred most of the Flies [butterflies] and Insects for these twenty years'. The delightful frontispiece of The Aurelian is almost certainly a self-portrait, showing Harris elegantly dressed and posing at his ease, his long, two-handled net on his knees, and some of his prize catches displayed around him in oval boxes. The setting is gloriously sylvan, and in the woodland ride behind him a fellow enthusiast stalks his prey. Beneath this idyllic image of an English aurelian's paradise are inscribed words from Psalm 111: 'The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.'

Pleasure and beauty, and the pursuit thereof, were the guiding principles of the Society of Aurelians, whose interest in butterflies was as much aesthetic as scientific, and whose meetings were well lubricated and convivial affairs (in the course of one of them, still in session after midnight, a disastrous fire broke out that destroyed their meeting place at the Swan tavern in Change Alley and forced them to make a hasty escape into the night, leaving the Society's records and collections to the flames). 
The plates in The Aurelian each show a selection of butterflies, moths and other insects, some of them with their caterpillars and chrysalids, all accurately drawn from life, brought together into a complete, balanced, artistically satisfying composition. Often a vase of flowers or some other not strictly relevant prop is included, brought in purely to perfect the beauty of the finished plate. And very beautiful these illustrations are. 

This plate features one of my favourite butterflies, the White Admiral (along with five moths – the Figure Eight, the Brown Plumed, the Scarce Silver Lines, the Chimney Sweeper and the Red Arches). Of the 'White Admirable', as he calls it, Moses Harris writes, disarmingly: 
'In all my researches in the Insect World, I have not been able to discover the Caterpillar of this excellent Fly. I have watched the females several times in the woods, thinking to find them laying their eggs; I have likewise beat every tree and shrub I could think on, about a month before their time of flight, but to none effect; so all that I can inform my reader is, that the Fly may be taken in woods, where they are found in plenty the latter end of June, and beginning of July; they fly very rapidly, often skimming like a swallow, and are fond of settling on the leaves of the oak; sometimes they settle on the ground, in the shady paths of the woods: they are very timorous, and when persued, with wonderful swiftness dart over the tops of the highest trees, or settle on the topmost branches, where they will be sure to tire your patience ere they will remove...'
This beautiful book will do much to help me through the cold, dark, butterflyless months of winter. 

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