Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) and Jacob van Huysum (1687-1740)
Benjamin WILKES (d.1749 or earlier). The English Moths and Butterflies: together with the plants, flowers, and fruits whereon they feed, and are usually found...being copied from the subjects themselves, and painted on the best atlas paper. [Edited, arranged and prefaced by Henry Baker]. London: printed for and sold by Benjamin Wilkes, [circa 1747-1749]. Small 2 (308 x 258mm.) Interleaved with larger (355 x 288mm.) blueey sugar paper, 2pp. subscribers' list. 120 etched plates by Wilkes of butterflies and moths amidst plants, the plants from drawings by Ehret and van Huysum. (The 54th plate with a section of the lower blank corner neatly cut away.) Late eighteenth century red straight-grained morocco gilt, covers with triple fillet border enclosing a wide 'greek-key' pattern border, surrounding a large central rectangular panel with broken corners with a sm of small flowerheads within lozenges, the spine in six compartments with double-raised bands, lettered in the second, the other compartments blank, each of the gaps between the double bands onlaid with a roll-tooled green morocco strip, gilt turn-ins, gilt edges, bookseller's label of R. Edwards, 142 New Bond Street, London (some scuffing to extremities). Provenance: Presentation copy with note, "This copy was a presentat.From ye Author J.Edwards"; WRH monogrammed armorial bookplate).
AUTHOR'S PRESENTATION COPY OF THE FIRST EDITION. A HITHERTO UNRECOGNIZED ADDITION TO THE CANON OF WORKS WITH ILLUSTRATIONS AFTER THE "FLOWER PAINTER EXTRAORDINARY": GEORGE DIONYSIUS EHRET.
Paul Whalley, writing in 1972, quotes a letter from Henry Baker to William Arderon dated 17 August 1749. '..I am pleased to find the trifles I sent you proved all agreeable. The Natural History of Butterflies is in some sort my own child, having myself compiled it and put it in the order it is now, from Mr.Wilkes memorandums, he being indefatigable in his observations and faithful in the minuting down every particular but for the want of learning quite incapable of writing a book..' (see J. Soc. Biblphy. nat. Hist.  6 : 127). Henry Baker, F.R.S. (1698-1774) first made his name (and later his fortune) as a result of the remarkable success of his method of teaching deaf mutes. He married Defoe's youngest daughter Sophia in 1729, was elected to the Society of Antiquaries in January 1740, and the Royal Society in March of the same year. In 1744 he was awarded the Copley Medal for his work with the microscope, and from 1754 was very active in the formation of the Society of Arts. After his death in November 1774 his extensive natural history and antiquarian collections were dispersed by auction.
In the preface to the present work Henry Baker writes "As to the Plants, Flowers and Fruits, he [Wilkes] declares himself under the highest obligation to a most curious Naturalist, and worthy Member of the Royal Society of London, whose costly and valuable Collection is known to the learned world, and esteemed as it deserves. This Gentleman has generously permitted him to make use of many excellent Paintings of these subjects, which are taken from Nature by those two celebrated Artists Mr. George Dennis [sic.] Ehret, and Mr. Jacobus van Heysum [sic.], and executed with the utmost Judgement and Command of Pencil, so that he could hardly doubt but that the true Copies of them would give great Pleasure to the Lovers of Botany, whom he has endeavoured to entertain with all Variety he could introduce."
Some initial research has confirmed that at least three of the plates correlate with recorded drawings by Ehret: Wilkes' 91st plate ('Burnet Rose') features a Field Rose (Rosa spinosissima) the original of which, a pencil and watercolour drawing (13.1x 10.7inches), was sold in these rooms recently (11 Nov. 1998 lot 44), and Wilkes' 64th and 79th plates include simplified versions of various parts of a drawing of a branch of a Smooth-leaved Elm (Ulmus carpinifolia) now in the Natural History Museum, London, (see Calmann "Ehret Flower painter extraordinary"  p.91, plate 63).
This second drawing gives an indication of the identity of the "most curious Naturalist": Calmann records that Sir Joseph Banks bought a collection of 65 finished drawings by Ehret (including the drawing of the Smooth-leaved Elm), at the sale following the death of Robert More F.R.S. (1703-1789). Robert More is not mentioned in R. Pulteney's list of Ehret's patrons, but is recorded in Ehret's papers as having been in contact with him: sending natural history specimen's from Lisbon (in 1749) and Shrewsbury (in 1759). A friend of Linnaeus and fond of travel, he was responsible for the introduction of the musk rose to England, as well as the re-introduction of the larch. In public life he served as an MP for Bishop's Castle and Shrewsbury. Peversely, the supposition that he was Wilkes' unknown benefactor is probably supported by his omission from the list of subscribers, which does include three other fellows of the Royal Society, who were also known patrons of Ehret (Peter Collinson, Dr. Richard Mead and Taylor White).
Further research is needed to confirm Robert More's position as the owner of the drawings, and also to establish which of the plates are after Ehret and which after Jacob van Huysum. That all of the plates include elements from the botanical drawings of one or other is stated unequivocally by Henry Bakker, who explains earlier in the preface that Wilkes also copied some of the butterflies and moths from volume I of Der monatlich-herausgegebenen Insecten-Belustigung (Nuermberg, 1740-46) by Augustin Johann Roesel von Rosenhof (1705-1759).
Little is known of Wilkes' life, and, other than a reference that Lisney discovered to the fact that he was born towards the end of the seventeenth century, much of what is known may be gleaned from the preface to the present work. He was not a very successful portrait and historical painter in oils, who became a member of the Aurelian Society and proceeded to form his own collection of English lepidoptera, making sketches of the various stages in the life histories of as many species as possible. Encouraged by Joseph Dandridge, who was also a patron of Albin, and by his "most curious Naturalist" Wilkes began publication of the present work. According to Baker (letter to Arderon, dated 17 August 1749, see above), Wilkes 'died of a fever in about a week after he had finished this laborious and elegant work'. He published two other works: Twelve new designs of English butterflies (1742) and folio broadsheet containing instructions for butterfly collectors, the sale of the present work was apparently continued after his death by his family.
The present copy is from an apparently unrecorded issue of the first edition with the plates interleaved. Baker mentions in the preface Wilkes' "new manner" of producing plates which results in "every Design, when coloured" appearing "like a rectangular Piece of Painting". The interleaving heightens this effect, and gives the work the appearance of an album of drawings. Although this issue is not mentioned, Wilkes is known to have made the work available in various forms, as the title makes it clear: 'The price of this work colour'd is nine pounds; which for the conveniency of the buyer is divided into four parts, and each part, or any single number, may be had separately. Uncoloured three pounds thirteen and sixpence, or two shillings and sixpence each number. The natural History by itself [i.e. just the text] ten shillings and sixpence." Engelmann p.557; Hagen p.289; Lisney 185; Nissen ZBI 4410.