bioephemera

Perry’s Arcana

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From 1810-11, architect and amateur naturalist George Perry published The Arcana, a lavishly illustrated, serial natural history magazine. Although Perry intended for the serial issues to be assembled by his subscribers into a book, only thirteen complete copies are known to survive today. More than a third of the known copies are in Australia – perhaps fittingly, as Perry was the first to publish an illustration of the koala (above).

Perry’s work is not well known; in researching this post, all I could find online were auction listings and occasional references to a recent facsimile edition edited by Richard Petit. (Be prepared for sticker shock – it’s not cheap). Harvard’s Ernst Mayr Library has a copy of the facsimile, though, so I walked over yesterday morning to have a look.


Tragically, I discovered that I had to look at the facsimile in a sun-drenched room crammed with old natural history books, looking out over the grassy space in front of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. So sad!

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The first thing that struck me about the Arcana facsimile is that it’s quite thick, with very good paper. It’s a facsimile, so I can’t infer whether the original paper was equally substantial, but I think I’d been thinking “serial = cheap magazine,” and this was definitely not that.

The second thing I noticed was the quality of the illustrations. They were hand colored hand-colored in the original; the effect is surprisingly delicate, and combined with the copious use of white space on the pages, very pleasing. This is definitely a book to leave lying casually open in your natural history themed sunroom:

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To approximate the experience of flipping through it, check out this video of stills from the copy of the Arcana at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia:

I have to confess that I wasn’t tempted to actually read Perry’s Arcana – only Petit’s introduction, with its historical context. Perry’s text was stereotypically flowery and dated. Interspersed with the shells, insects, and animals were passages from (other writers’) travelogues to China, Australia, and other parts of the world, and I have never been a fan of 17th-19th century travelogues. Pretty as the artifact was, I knew basically nothing I’d read would be accurate.

Petit’s introduction, though, was quite good (though shorter than I’d expected). Petit updates Perry’s taxonomy and provides historical context, but leaves original errors and exaggerations in place. For example, Perry mixes the characteristics of the dolphin-fish (a fish) with the dolphin (a mammal). The errors and exaggerations aren’t surprising; Perry was a self-taught naturalist (Collections manager Paul Callomon of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences calls him a “gentleman student” – quite a nice euphemism) who used local specimens and pets as models. The elephant pictured below, for example, resided in a British menagerie. Tragically, it became berserk as the result of an infected tusk and was put down with several hundred musketballs and a spear (information given in Petit’s introduction).

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Perry also apparently took a Lamarckian approach to taxonomy, which may have contributed to the neglect of his work. Callomon says Perry’s peers portrayed him “as a dilettante who made things up, and who knew little about the higher organization of the natural world.” Perhaps so – I certainly wouldn’t use a copy of the Arcana as a scientific reference – but there is something rather awesome about a self-taught natural historian publishing his amateur vision of the natural world.

Perry really should have had a blog.

Sources:

Jeff Akst. “Perry’s Arcana, 1810-1811.” The Scientist, July 2010, p. 76.
Gary Presland. “Perry’s Arcana” (Review). Historical Records of Australian Science, 2010, p. 117-18.
Perry’s Arcana at Amazon.com