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The art of science: a 'rediscovery' of the Lister copperplates

Royal Society
Publication Date
  • V380 History Of Science
  • Design
  • Philosophy


In 1712 Martin Lister bequeathed the collection of more than 1000 copperplates to the University of Oxford that he used for his Historiae Conchyliorum, the first comprehensive study of conchology. In the mid-eighteenth century, William Huddesford, keeper of the Bodleian Library, used the copperplates to create another edition of Historiae, but after that they are not mentioned again in the published literature. I recently 'rediscovered' the plates in the Bodleian Library, since their transfer from the Ashmolean Museum in 1860. I use historical analysis, as well as a selective study of the copperplates with X-ray fluorescence techniques, to examine a portion of the plates and the process of their production. I show that Martin Lister's daughter engraved a paper for Philosophical Transactions, and demonstrate that she was among the first female scientific illustrators to use a microscope. Furthermore, one of the Lister copperplates may be the last survivor of those engraved for Philosophical Transactions, the rest having been surrendered to the nation in World War I. The significant intellectual and artisanal challenges presented to a skilful naturalist in the transformation of a field specimen into an aesthetically pleasing illustration as well as a scientific object conveying taxonomic information are delineated.

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