Tuesday, October 12, 2010

As Nature Shows Them

An image of a yellow and black butterfly.At first glance, Sherman Denton's As Nature Shows Them: Moths and Butterflies of the United States (Boston, J. B. Millett, 1908) appears to be just another field guide for butterfly enthusiasts. But a closer look shows something extraordinary: the illustrations seem to shimmer like the flash of a butterfly wing in the sun. That is because the color plates are, in the words of the maniacally obsessed author:

Direct transfers from the insects themselves; that is to say, the scales of the wings of the insects are transferred to the paper while the bodies are printed from engravings and afterward colored by hand. The making of such transfers is not original with me, but it took a good deal of experimenting to so perfect the process as to make the transfers, on account of their fidelity to detail and their durability, fit for use as illustrations in such a work. And what magnificent illustrations they are, embodying all the beauty and perfection of the specimens themselves!

The edition of 500 copies, each with three volumes containing hundred of plates, required tremendous effort by Denton. He continues:

As I have had to make over fifty thousand of these transfers for the entire edition, not being able to get any one to help me who would do the work as I desired it done, and as more than half the specimens from which they were made were collected by myself, I having made many trips to different parts of the country for their capture, some idea of the labor in connection with preparing the material for the publication may be obtained.

To see the wonders of his "labor of love" ask for Rare Book QL549 .D42.

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