Contributor: Sophie Laniel-Musitelli
Location: British Museum
Description: To his family’s coat of arms—a shield blazoned with three scallop shells—Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) added the banner “E Conchis Omnia”, “everything out of shells.” When the clergyman Thomas Seward saw that motto, he wrote a satirical poem accusing Darwin of:
[…] renounc[ing] his Creator,
And form[ing] all things from senseless matter.
Great wizard he! by magic spells
Can raise all things from cockle shells (King-Hele 89).
Erasmus Darwin was indeed one of the first proponents of the gradual transformation of species. In his scientific treatises and poems, the progress of life-forms from rudimentary beings to complex species seems to take place outside divine intervention, through a natural aspiration towards greater perfection.
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Contributor: Caroline Dauphin
Location: Private collection
Description: Tracing the development of life from marine animalcules to humankind, through “millions of ages”, in heroic couplets: such was the daring project of The Temple of Nature, the last poem written by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). This original edition by Joseph Johnson matches the author’s ambitions: the poem was published in a large in-quarto volume, lavishly illustrated by Henry Fuseli. The size of the volume made it possible for the reader to admire all the details of Fuseli’s delicate frontispiece representing Urania lifting the veil of Nature. More accessorily, it also facilitated the reading of Darwin’s lengthy scientific footnotes.
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Contributor: Alice Rhodes
Location: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield, UK
Description: Although best known for his careers as poet and doctor (or perhaps for his grandson Charles, who would go on to lay claim to the Darwin name in the public consciousness) Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was also a prolific inventor proposing apparatuses of every kind from systems of canal locks to a steam powered chariot. Many of these, like the “Artificial Bird” pictured above, can be found in the commonplace book which Darwin kept between 1776 and 1787, now housed at Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield. There is no record of the bird leaving the pages of the commonplace book until its reconstruction by Erasmus Darwin House in 2013, yet Darwin’s bird is more than a flight of fancy. Nor was it a mere toy or curiosity. It can be read as an instrument or experiment through which Darwin gained knowledge of both physics and avian physiology, and it hatched from a long European history of creating such mechanisms.
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Contributor: Cian Duffy
Location: Sicily, Italy (37°45.3N’ 14°59.7’E)
Description: With a current elevation of c.3350m (as of June 2019), Mount Etna is an active stratovolcano on the east coast of the island of Sicily. Etna was much less frequently visited during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than the more accessible Vesuvius, outside Naples, the usual terminus of the European Grand Tour (the main route to Sicily was via boat from Naples). The mountain had nevertheless been ‘famous from all antiquity for its vomiting up fire’, as John Dryden the younger (1688-1701), the son of the poet, reminds us in his posthumously-published Voyage to Sicily and Malta (1776). During the Romantic period, Etna and its eruptions were made the subject of many paintings and panoramas and featured also in numerous works of prose, verse, and drama produced and consumed across Europe.
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