The oldest Lepidoptera book in the Queensland Museum Library

by Shannon Robinson, Queensland Museum Librarian

Inspired by the recent butterfly activity this is the perfect time to share a couple of the rare Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) books held in the Queensland Museum Library. Unlike today, where we can photograph insects from using our phones to a microscopic-lens camera, the early naturalists relied on the art of hand-drawn illustration to accompany their text. There’s some wonderful examples in the collection, prized not only for their artistry but also for their scientifically value.

The oldest Lepidoptera book in the library, released across 1779-1782 as a four-volume set, is Papillons exotiques des trois parties du monde l’Asie, l’Afrique et l’Amerique: Rassembles et decrits par Mr. Pieter Cramer (translation =Exotic butterflies from three parts of the world Asia, Africa and America: Collected and described by Mr. Pieter Cramer”).

Second decorative frontispiece to volume 1. The artist’s creation. Note the drawings, pens and artwork in the foreground of this imagined tropical landscape.

Insect taxonomists are still referring to this 18th century work today as it contains the first descriptions of many species. Initially, Cramer commissioned an Amsterdam artist Gerrit Wartenaar to illustrate his vast lepidoptera collection for his personal use, but was inspired to publish them after being so impressed with the hand-coloured engravings of life-size drawings of the specimens.


Plate XI from volume 1 [A & B: “Papilio Hypolitus”, female, now Troides hypolitus, Rippon’s birdwing, a birdwing butterfly endemic to the Moluccas and Sulawesi, family Papilionidae. C & D: “Papilio Hesione”, now Orsotriaena medus, a butterfly found in south Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia, family Nymphalidae. E & F: “Papilio Odites”, now Juditha odites, a butterfly found in Central America from Costa Rica to West Ecuador, family Riodinidae.]

Plate IX from volume 1 [A. “Phalaena Atlas”, now Attacus atlas, the Atlas moth, is a large saturniid moth endemic to the forests of Asia. B, C: “Papilio Similis”, now Graphium leonidas, the Veined Swordtail, Veined Swallowtail or Common Graphium, is a species of butterfly in the family Papilionidae, found in Sub-Saharan Africa] 
The library holds one of only four copies in Australia! Want to see more? Cramer’s book is available in a digitised format at the Biodiversity Heritage Library here.

An Australian focus is naturally a feature of the collection. Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations (vol.1 1864; vol. 2 1890), features hand-coloured illustrations by Harriet and Helena Scott with ‘descriptions, general and systematic’ by A.W. Scott. Entomologist Alexander Walker Scott, who was a founding member of the Entomological Society of NSW in 1862, would enlist his daughters, Harriet and Helena, to illustrate his papers and published works. This 2-volume set is a beautiful example of their artistic skills. The Scott sisters illustrated several scientific publications during the 1860s-80s, although Helena continued through the turn of the century and designed the first Australian themed wildflower Christmas cards. In another first, as women, they held honorary membership of the NSW Entomological Society.

Treat yourself – all the illustrations of the Scott book are available on BHL. View here.

Detail of Hand coloured lithograph “drawn from life and on stone by Helena Scott.”
 (Vol.1, Plate 8)
Detail of Hand coloured lithograph “drawn from life and on stone by Harriet Scott” (Vol.1, Plate 5)