THOMAS MARTYN (fl.1760-1816)
The Universal Conchologist, exhibiting the figure of every known shell accurately drawn and painted after nature. [London: for the author, n.d. but 1784 and later, some plates watermarked 1824]--A collection of 40 engraved plates from the work (275 x 380mm and smaller), all finely handcoloured to resemble original watercolours, most within a black ink-ruled frame and including 4 plates present in two states, some with contemporary and/or later manuscript captions. (Some plates with scattered light spotting or light dampmarking, some captions trimmed.)
FORTY PLATES FROM 'ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OF ALL SHELL BOOKS, CONTAINING EXQUISITE RENDERINGS OF SHELLS COLLECTED ON COOK'S THREE VOYAGES and on other voyages, with specimens identified as having been obtained from New Holland, New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, and the Hawaiian Islands' (Hawaiian National Bibliography 80). The eighteenth-century passion for conchology--practised by such distinguished collectors and connoisseurs as Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, second Duchess of Portland, Sir Joseph Banks, Pierre Lyonet, Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, and Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria--generated a vigorous (and voracious) market for exotic rarities and previously-unknown specimens. As an example of the astronomical prices paid for fine examples (which echoed the tulipomania of the previous century, in spite of the political upheavals of the period), the posthumous sale of Lyonet's collections in 1791 may be cited; this auction saw his exemplum of the 'Nautile vitré' realise 299 guilders, whilst Vermeer's 'Woman in Blue Reading a Letter' sold for 41 guilders. The lucrative market for shells meant that the examples brought back from Cook's First and Second Voyages found a ready market in London; of those acquired during the Third Voyage, the majority were bought by Thomas Martyn, as he stated in a letter of 9 December 1780: 'I may venture to affirm that I have purchased, amounting to 400 guineas, more than 2 thirds of the whole brought home. Nevertheless I do not abound either in variety of the new or many duplicates of the known ones that are valuable' (quoted in: P. Dance Shell Collecting (London: 1966), p.100), reiterating in a letter of 18 December 1780, 'I repeat it again 2/3rds. of the whole from the 2 ships [i.e. Resolution and Discovery] were bought by me. All the rest of the shells are positively in the cabinets of Mr Banks, Dr Fordyce & two other Gentleman' (quoted in: P. Dance loc. cit.).
Martyn's Universal Conchologist used these shells, together with specimens from the cabinets of the Duchess of Portland, the Countess of Bute, John Hunter and others, as models for the 160 plates, and the work sought to give both scientists and connoisseurs a systematic treatise on shells, which was carefully and clearly illustrated. As Martyn states in the preface: 'complicated systems, bad arrangements, and the practice of crowding many sheets of different families into one plate, have not only confused the subject, and created a distaste to the science itself, but made it necessary that even the most experienced collector should have some clew to conduct him through those labyrinths of difficulties' (Universal Conchologist, p.4). By comparison with such works, the shells on Martyn's plates are beautifully detailed and very clearly displayed; the first eighty plates each showing two shells, the second eighty with one shell per plate (although, since the shells from Cook's last voyage yielded a far lower proportion of previously-unknown examples than Martyn had anticipated, the plates depict fewer examples than the author had originally desired).
The exquisitely-coloured plates with their barely-visible printed bases and dense hand-colouring were the work of an academy of indigent young artists recruited by Martyn. His early experiments, using independent and established artists to colour his engravings, had proved costly and unsatisfactory; their services were expensive, and the results of their work too varied and inconsistent to be scientifically satisfying. Therefore, Martyn recruited young men who showed artistic talent, and trained them himself; since their styles were as yet unformed, he felt that there 'would generally be found that uniformity and equality of style, conception, and execution which it would be in vain to expect from a variety of independent artists' (Martyn, quoted by P. Dance op. cit., p.101), and the fruit of their labours was 'a work which, for beauty, has seldom been surpassed in the history of conchological iconography' (P. Dance op. cit., p.103). The plates were issued in varying formats over an extended period of time, and other sets which, like the present, contain variations of composition are known (cf. Hawaiian National Bibliography 175 for sets of plates with Whatman 1824 watermarks).
Eventually the Academy comprised nine talented, young artists, and the skill and delicacy of their specific technique is alluded to in Martyn's double prospectus for the suite of four prints of the South Sea Islands after Cleveley (see lots 35, 40 and 41) and his Universal Conchologist: 'A certain number of these elegant views, finely coloured, in a style entirely new, so as scarcely to be distinguished from the original drawings, will be executed by the pupils of Mr. Martyn's Academy'.
Since Martyn dispersed some of the shells after he had published this work, the Universal Conchologist is distinguished as the only illustrated catalogue of the greater part of the shells collected on the Third Voyage, supplemented by examples from other cabinets which had been collected during Cook's previous voyages, and it should therefore be considered as scientifically important as a record of the conchological discoveries of the Third Voyage, as Banks' Florilegium is as a record of the botanical discoveries of the First Voyage.
BM(NH) III, p.1258; Brunet III, col.1507; Hawaiian National Bibliography 80; Nissen ZBI 2728 (Nissen has conflated the author, Thomas Martyn, draughtsman, with the botanist Thomas Martyn F.R.S. (1735-1825)); Spence p.39. BM(NH) III, p.1258; Spence p.39. (40)