Monkeys in black and white and colour

Situations regularly arise where a detailed catalogue record turns out to be of paramount importance. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of an early inspection of some of the books in the wonderful Crewe Collection, bequeathed by Mary Innes-Ker, Duchess of Roxburghe to Trinity College. These included an early 19th century French book on monkeys, Histoire naturelle des singes et des makis, with splendid black and white full page illustrations, so I came back to check the University Library’s own holdings. We appeared to have a copy (OA.2.12) which duplicated that at Trinity, and I might well not have investigated further had our catalogue record not been rudimentary and in need of upgrading. There were two different forms of entry for the author in the catalogue, there was no information about publisher or about the book’s illustrations.

Close up of armorial stamp on OA.2.12

Close up of armorial stamp on OA.2.12

When the book was fetched to the Rare Books Reading Room, it was immediately evident that this was a special item. It is in a nineteenth-century blind tooled green morocco binding with the armorial stamp of the Worts Fund of Cambridge University in gold, marbled end papers and gilt edges.  A note in pencil on the title-page indicates that the volume had been collated by one of my predecessors 161 years ago, on April 25th 1854, and that the 63 plates were complete. The Bibliothèque nationale’s copy has been digitised and can be found on Gallica, so useful comparisons are possible, but the digitised images do not convey the quality of the publication in the same way as inspection of our original.

The copy in the Bibliothèque nationale was published “Chez Desray, libraire, rue Haute-Feuille, no 36, An huitième” (23 September 1799-23 September 1800). The University Library’s copy seems identical in every respect, but appears to be a reissue of 1810. The publisher is different, but located a few doors down in the same street. There is clearly a slight mystery here which waits to be clarified.


Preface page of OA.2.12

Unlike Trinity’s copy, the Library’s is hand-coloured, and the colouring is exceptionally attractive. The author, Jean-Baptiste Audebert, trained as an artist, and had earned a reputation as a painter of miniatures before he turned to natural history. The pictures of monkeys and lemurs all appear to have been made after specimens in the Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Paris. The reader should perhaps allow for publisher’s hyperbole in the preface’s description of the museum as –

ce bel établissement, le plus riche qui soit en Europe, le plus étendu dans toutes ses parties

However, and perhaps more significantly, equal emphasis is laid on the museum’s educational role, as attested by the detailed and scholarly descriptions accompanying these plates, and the preface’s insistence on the passionate interest in natural history and scientific investigation displayed by the Parisian public –

des leçons données chaque jour reçues avec avidité par une foule d’auditeurs

Jean-Baptiste Audebert died in Paris at the age of 49 in the same year that his Histoire naturelle des singes et des makis was first published. However, he had completed all the work for two further volumes entitled Oiseaux dorés, ou à reflets métalliques, which was published posthumously in 1801-1802. Here he placed lines of gold and silver over the painted colours of the birds so as to give them a metallic sheen imitating the iridescent colours of nature. It is an indication of the great riches of the University Library that we hold two copies of this set (OA.2.13-14 and, on deposit from Clare College),, but detailed examination of these remains a pleasure on hold for some future occasion.

David Lowe

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