James Sowerby's British Mineralogy (1802–1817)

On December 13, 1795, a fifty-six-pound meteorite fell from the sky into an English quarry. Wondering if it had “come from some volcano in the Moon”, the landowner turned this lump of multi-colored minerals over to James Sowerby, a well-connected scientific illustrator and naturalist. Sowerby published an extensive account of what became known as the “Yorkshire Meteorite” in his five-part mineralogical handbook, inviting pushback from geologists who thought that including a “Phaëton from the heavens might seem absurd in a work on British Mineralogy”. Since the curious object contained substances commonly found within mines of the British Isles, Sowerby believed the meteorite belonged in a volume primarily devoted to more mundane earthbound subjects, such as table salt and oxygenized carbon.

Comprised of more than four hundred vividly hand-colored engravings of various rocks, minerals, and compounds, British Mineralogy saw the Royal Academy-trained illustrator depart from his focus on botany toward non-living specimens. Pledging to leave “no stone unturned” in communicating to both laypeople — farmers, miners, and surveyors — and a growing class of gentlemanly mineralogists interested in theories of evolutionary transmutation, Sowerby tried to bridge ever-growing cleavages in geological communities during a time when the age of Earth was hotly disputed. Geologists adhering to “Volcanian” and “Neptunian” theories of planetary origin might, at long last, “shake hands together”, if provided with detailed illustrations of every known British “species” of rock and mineral. By referencing these dueling ideologies, which argued that the Earth was born either out of fiery eruption or biblical deluge, Sowerby positioned his work at the center of a debate that held enormous stakes far beyond the realm of geology.

James Sowerby, British Mineralogy, or, Coloured Figures Intended to Elucidate the Mineralogy of Great Britain, Vol. 1 (London: R. Taylor and Co., 1804).

Catastrophism — the idea that the origins of Earth and the transmutation of species have been shaped by sudden, often violent events — dominated early-nineteenth century scientific debates about evolution and extinction. Embraced, by some, as a way of reconciling biblical beginnings with increasingly common discoveries of fossilized bones that pointed to a decidedly non-Christian view of the world, the set of layered theories attempted to integrate mass extinction with ongoing transmutation. Sowerby, who was deeply committed to public scholarship, refused to weigh in on the religious implication of his geological work, saving it for later texts on less “controversial” subjects. Seemingly circumspect in his own beliefs, Sowerby gestured towards, while never fully engaging with, profound conversations between science and religion.

Despite his scientific leanings, James Sowerby was first and foremost an artist. From his intricately detailed accounts of fungi and shells to his 1809 A New Elucidation of Colour Theory (dedicated to none other than Isaac Newton), the naturalist was concerned with translating three-dimensional, colorful, and sometimes ephemeral objects to the flat surface of the page. Adept in describing and demonstrating how complex questions of perspective, scale, and color functioned in individual objects, Sowerby’s observational eyes and deft hands were remarkable for the time and continue to work as standards within scientific illustration. The illustrator’s rocks and minerals were, at once, geometric objects and geological proofs of the Earth’s age.

By the 1830s, geologists had largely replaced catastrophic origin theories with “uniformitarian” ideas of gradual change. These ideas were most clearly articulated in geologist Charles Lyell’s enormously popular and oft-revised Principles of Geology, a scantily illustrated text that formed the sediments of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Sowerby, for his part, continued to add natural-historical specimens to his private collections while building a familial legacy of scientific collecting and illustration that lasted for generations. As Sowerby’s disciple John Mawe wrote in his public-facing Familiar Lessons on Mineralogy and Geology, the magic and mystery of mineralogy, from meteorite to table salt, lay in its multiple identities, spanning audiences and consumers. Rocks and minerals, in all of their mundanity, held beautiful and sublime lessons about the world for specialists and non-specialists alike — a beauty that Sowerby was devoted to capturing through illustration, and a beauty that continues to capture illustrators and designers more than two centuries later.

Find below highlights of plates from all five volumes. You can see the first four volumes at the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and the full set at e-rara. Also check out this wonderful hand-copied selection from Sowerby's work made in 1840 by a woman named Martha Proby.

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