Leaping Lepidochromy!

Posted on 6th September 2019 by simonbeattie

We have come across some unique things here at Simon Beattie Ltd, but this one is new to us: lepidochromy, i.e., printing with butterflies.

The Peacock.

Yes, you read that correctly: there is a printing process wherein actual butterflies are ‘printed’. It is a type of transfer illustration, and not dissimilar to other types of ‘nature printing’ wherein leaves, grass, etc., are used. Butterflies, of course, pose a bit of a challenge. Not only are they tricky to catch, they are also rather delicate, making it unsurprising that books employing lepidochromy are so hard to come by.

The Red Admiral.

Our latest list features a copy of Joseph Merrin’s Butterflying with the Poets (Gloucester, 1863). It was privately printed in a very limited number of copies. Of the book, Roderick Cave writes: ‘The earliest attempt that I can trace to use lepidochromy for publication in a very rare book published at Gloucester. Butterflying with the Poets; a picture of the poetical aspect of butterfly life … written and published by Joseph Merrin [1820– 1904]. It was a peculiarly Victorian book, with its attempt to inculcate zoological knowledge and to raise readers’ sensibility through the plentiful quotation of verse, but – if it were not for the fact that its production necessarily caused the destruction of up to 130 butterflies for every copy – it is rather an attractive one. Merrin explained what he was attempting in his Preface, in a passage which gives a good picture of his style: “[…] it would be a difficult task for even the most accomplished artist to depict in all its complete beauty any one of the more gaily-coloured species […] and this is wholly beyond the reach of Art, when the necessary book-condition is annexed, what a considerable number of representations must be made. Under these circumstances Nature herself happily furnishes us with the means of partially overcoming the difficulty, for several species are not so uncommon but that they can literally be pressed into the service, the process of Nature-Printing, as applicable to the Lepidoptera, which the author has improved, rendering possible the permanent transfer to paper of the scales, and consequently of the colours, of the insects themselves. By this means all the delicate varieties of shade, marking, and colour, are faithfully preserved, and a brilliant reality given to the representation, of which the most carefully finished portrait of the artist would be deficient. The number of specimens obtainable is, however, so limited, and the manipulative labour required to obtain the impressions of them so great, that the price of any work giving this novel and beautiful species of illustration, must necessarily be high, and the number of copies executed very limited” … It was extraordinarily labour-intensive, and it is scarcely to be wondered that Merrin made no attempt to follow it with other books produced in the same way’ (Impressions of Nature: a History of Nature Printing, British Library, 2010, pp. 155–7).

For more, check out our latest list: 20 recent acquisitions.

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