Wednesday, March 6, 2024

A Closer Look: Richard Owen and Roelant Savery's Dodos in "Animals, Exploring the Zoological World"

Most books about the history of natural science are forced to at least mention Richard Owen, owing to his extensive career which swept through the whole animal kingdom and even to more domestic causes, such as sanitary reform. Almost no aspect of natural history was left untouched by his hand. Any book on dinosaurs, for instance, usually dedicates a small portion of its pages to acknowledging the scientist who gave the group of reptiles their iconic name. However, these brief remarks can only impart so much, usually only serving as an introduction to Owen’s life, which, unless you feel inclined to spend hundreds of pounds on books or subscriptions to academic journals, can be challenging to find accurate information about. Unsurprisingly, owing to the nature of the internet, many web articles are steeped in sensationalist headlines about various controversies he was involved in, often painting him as a cartoonishly power-hungry villain. Some good examples of this are: “The Man Who Named Dinosaurs Was An Absolute Train Wreck” & “The Dastardly Doings of the Paleographical Professor”. While both contain some factual information and have snappy titles, they are written with a bias against Owen and exaggerate his ‘crimes’ for a more entertaining and clickable read. This admittedly works. I clicked them, but I benefit from three years of research to inform my opinions.
That being said, there are a few positive posts here and there, such as: “Dinosaurs, Gorillas & More: Remembering Richard Owen” and “Sir Richard Owen and the Sanitary Reform in Lancaster”, which I recommend.
In response to the lack of accessible, sympathetic information on the web and in popular books, I hope to expand on these brief snippets to highlight the nuances of Owen’s life and career and have some fun with the project.

Cover of “Animals, Exploring the Zoological World”
I have chosen the book Animal, Exploring the Zoological World, a fantastic compendium by several authors to start my project. On the page for the Dodo, Owen is mentioned:

“Animals, Exploring the Zoological World”, pg. 234

“It remains uncertain whether this painting by the Dutch artist Roelandt Savery (1576-1639), one of the most famous of a dodo, was of a live or a dead subject. The latter is perhaps more likely. In fact, Savery's depiction of the large head, curved neck, short stumpy legs and big rump has been questioned through modern anatomical work. In 2015 the British palaeontologist Julian Hume examined numerous dodo bones from the world's museums and suggested that the bird has longer legs, a straighter neck, a less bulky body and a smaller head than its common image. After coming under the ownership of an eighteenth-century ornithologist, George Edwards, Savery's painting reached the Natural History Museum, where the first superintendent, Professor Richard Owen, used it to scientifically describe the dodo in 1866.“

As of 1866, this painting would have been in the British Museum, where it was donated by George Edwards in 1750, as the inscription at the top of the artwork shows. It was likely moved to the Natural History Museum between 1881 and 1883 when the organic collections and associated natural history material were being moved from one museum to the other where it remains. As the author states, this is arguably the most iconic painting of a Dodo and is the foundation of the modern public's idea of the bird's appearance. Therefore, it holds great importance. This was just as true in Owen’s time, and as the British empire expanded, the Dodo became a popular point of study for many scientists. Flightless birds, in particular, are a group that we find Owen returning to time and time again, from the giant moas and kiwis of New Zealand, a pet subject of his, to this icon of extinction, the Dodo of Mauritius.
It was first anatomically described in ‘Memoir On The Dodo (Didus ineptus, Linn.). By Richard Owen, F.R.S., With An Historical Introduction By The Late John Broderip, F.R.S.’ in 1866. As is to be expected with works by Richard Owen, there is some controversy surrounding this text as to whether he or George Clark, who discovered the collection of bones the memoir is based on in the Mare aux Songes, an area of marshy land near the south coast of Mauritius (Fuller, 2003) had the first rights to the description of the bird, a more thorough analysis of this situation can be found in “How Owen stole the Dodo”. Regardless of who had the upper hand in publishing, Owen was excited to have the opportunity to examine the new cache of bones, as evidenced by a letter he wrote to his sister in October 1865:
“The dodo I owe mainly to the Bishop of Mauritius: it was found — its bones to wit — in a morass by one of the diocesan schoolmasters, for whom I hope to get 100/. I have been working in the day and dreaming at night about my Xmas bird for a fortnight past. It proves to be a great ground pigeon, grown too big to fly, and so let its wings go to waste” (Owen, 1894, pp. 165-166)

The note on atrophied wings is reminiscent of Lamarck’s thoughts on the process of transmutation, which, in simplified terms, was that the disuse of a body part prompted it to disappear incrementally over generations, or increase with prolonged use. The most recognisable example used for this theory being the neck of the giraffe, stretched out over generations of reaching for high foliage. However, Owen was not a believer of Lamarkism.
Owen’s interest in Dodos in the 1860s was far from new, and the 1625 painting was not the only one of Savery’s depictions of the bird that Owen had seen, as this letter written to his wife, Caroline, from the Plaats Royaal, Leyden, in 1838 shows:

"I spent a glorious morning in the museum at the Hague. There they have Savery's real "Orpheus and the Beasts" but, believe me, nothing to compare with ours. [...] What do you think I espied in a dark corner? Why, a DODO- a dodo in full plumage. Note that he (the artist or the dodo, which you please) lived between 1576 and 1639. He was contemporary with the man whom Natural History describes as having brought the stuffed dodo from Mauritius. The nostrils are very far forwards, as in the apteryx [Kiwi], and the feet very similar in the relative position and size of the toes. I took a sketch; the head precisely resembles that of the Oxford Museum specimen." (Owen, 1893, pp. 128-139)

“Orpheus Charming the Animals with his Music”, 1627, Roelant Savery, public domain.

According to the 1848 book “The dodo and its kindred”, the various fauna painted in ‘Orpheus and the Beasts’ were minutely accurate, and Owen suspected that Savery had had the opportunity to study live models for most of the animals and he set about making a list of which ones he thought Savery had personally studied. That was when he spotted the Dodo tucked away in the corner; the painting was hung between two large windows, which made the bird, in a particularly dark section, difficult to see unless you poured over the painting, which Owen did.

"In the number and proportions of the toes, and in general form, it accords with Edward's oil painting in the British Museum; and I conclude that the miniature must have been copied from the study of a living bird, which, it is most probable, formed part of the Mauritian menagerie. The bird is standing in profile with a lizard at its feet." (Strickland et al. , 1848, p. 30)

Dodo detail in “Orpheus Charming the Animals with his Music”, 1627, Roelant Savery, public domain.

Thrilled to have found the hidden gem, Owen immediately set about asking Dutch naturalists for more information, but none of the responses he received knew that the Dodo was in the painting at all, and Strickland credits Owen with having been the first to bring this illustration to public attention. Owen bases his belief that the Dodo was painted from life on similarities with the more famous Savery painting above and comparison with the head of a dodo deposited in Oxford; the latter had been removed from a semi-destroyed taxidermy mount and was in poor shape. It wasn’t until the 1860s that Owen made his complete account of dodo osteology. Perhaps, 20 years later than his perusal of “Orpheus and the Beasts” and armed with a plethora of new information on dodo anatomy, he may have changed his mind about it being based on a live animal, though I haven’t yet found further comment on the matter from Owen.
It is speculated that Savery referenced one of his own paintings to produce the Dodo he commonly intersperses in his other work. As the author of the ‘Animals’ segment asserts, it is still uncertain whether or not Savery initially used a live specimen or a taxidermy mount, though the dodos that Savery paints are far bulkier than what it is now thought to have looked like. In my opinion, as someone who has not studied this in any depth but has been a taxidermist, if a taxidermy model was used, it is possible that 17th-century taxidermists overstuffed the dodo skin, giving it a bulbous appearance that Savery may then have emulated with his paintbrush. Adding too much filling to a taxidermy mount is remarkably easy. I have spent many hours removing pieces of woodwool to try and correct the misshapen body forms I’ve mistakenly created, and I had the benefit of readily available reference images. The taxidermists working on dodos would’ve had no such tool. However, this is pure speculation on my part.

Richard Owen meshing the arts and the sciences together by using paintings as a tool for taking a glimpse into the morphology of dodos shows an exciting intersection between daily life, such as visiting foreign galleries, and the biology he is better known for. It is easy to view eminent scientists solely through the lens of their craft, but the day-to-day mundanities sometimes produce fortuitous results, such as the Dodo in “Orpheus and the Beasts” which may have come to light much later if Owen had not decided to step into an art museum and have a look around.


Fuller, E. (2003), The Dodo Extinction in Paradise. Boston, MA: Bunker Hill Publishing Inc.
('File:Orpheus Charming the Animals with His Music by Roelant Savery Mauritshuis 157.jpg' (2019). Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 06 March 2024) 
Owen, R. (1893) The Life of Richard Owen. London: John Murray

Strickland, H. E., Melville A. G. (1848) The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon, London: Reeve, Benham, and Reeve

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Happy 200th Anniversary "Megalosaurus"!

With just a few minutes to spare before the day closes out, I can proudly say I was alive for the 200th anniversary of naming the first dinosaur, Megalosaurus bucklandii. On the 20th of February 1824, at a meeting of the Geological Society, William Buckland read his paper: “Notice on the megalosaurus or great fossil lizard of Stonesfield”, paving the way for palaeontologists to come, particularly relevantly to me, Richard Owen, who, 17 years later would coin “Dinosauria” to describe the group of animals that Megalosaurus belonged to. And, of course, Gideon Mantell, who named & discovered Hylaeosaurus and Iguanodon, the other two to make up the three original members of Dinosauria. 

I had the honour of celebrating the occasion at the History of Geology Group’s reenactment of the 1824 meeting, which was a wonderful experience. I thank everyone who put it on. It only felt right to contribute something myself, so here’s a small cartoon commemorating this historic event. However, don’t look too closely at the modern Megalosaurus. I’m no paleoartist, and with only half an hour before bed to put this together, I can’t be held responsible for the manifold inaccuracies! 

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Museum Room : 06/08/2023 & Snuff Boxes

It occurred to me that I still needed to introduce and post about my progress with the Museum Room, so before it got too polished, I wanted to show a sense of the process.

The idea of the Museum Room started with the antiques I've collected over the years needing a proper place to live, and where they were scattered around the house wasn't conducive to displaying them or keeping them in good condition. So, with that in mind, I cleared out a small spare room which previously contained a wasteland of boxes and set about trying to make it a viable miniature museum for myself. 

One goal I had particularly in mind was to have things displayed, or at least not packaged away where I'd never look at them, so that they could be enjoyed and appreciated. Eventually, I'd like to label them with relevant information to mimic what you'd find in a real museum. 

So, let's take an extremely brief tour of what we have so far:

The door is situated in the middle of the room, which is a narrow rectangle and upon opening it, you can see a nice pile of papers I have yet to catalogue. Beneath is a lovely glass-topped table which, once the rest of the room is shipshape, I am hoping to find a more prominent place for.
The middle shelf (disregarding that dangling, disconnected wire!) was the setting for the front of my business card, and the set dressing still needs to be taken down.
Some items, like the bone saw and anything particularly delicate, have been put back in storage, but a few of the wet specimens remain while I find a place for them.
Turning to our right, there is one of the luckiest finds I've ever had whilst shopping for furniture: a 20th-century Globe Wernicke with a corner unit and extra storage underneath. 
Globe Wernicke's were initially designed as portable and infinitely customisable bookshelves, and they still fill that office today, being very useful for my purposes with their glass fronts; they will make excellent places to display objects, especially with their lovely dark colour. 
I particularly want the room not to have a modern and sleek appearance; these bookshelves help keep an antique feel.
However, one downside to the glass is that I can't photograph through it. That being said, there's enough room to hold most of the books I want on display without having to lie them sideways. Except for the one on top, that's not its permanent place, so I'll let myself off. 
Turning now to our left, what we're greeted with isn't a particularly pretty sight, but it is a necessary one. This is the "utility" side of the room, where I can keep all the artefacts that need to be wrapped or boxed. 
The desk and chair are probably permanent fixtures as I need somewhere to do the cataloguing, but they fit the desired appearance well. 
I still have a lot of work to do: I'd like to paint the walls a different colour, tidy and find a home for the acid-free paper (which you can see is presently on the floor!), but this is a long-term project, so we'll see how it goes! 
I'm excited to see this gradually come together and to have a record of my own progress. Undoubtedly, I'll look back at this post in a few years and be glad to have it documented.

To supplement these Museum Room posts, I would like to post a couple items from my collection: Today, Snuff boxes! 

These are three relatively recent acquisitions, 19th-century paper mache snuff boxes. I suspect the first one might be turn of the century, as the border seems to be in the art nouveau style and the font of the "Help yourself!" corresponds. I find the text very charming, as it can either be read as an invitation or a sarcastic remark.
The third box is minuit! I didn't realise snuff boxes came in such a small size, especially with the level of detail shown by the inlaid design. Perhaps it was for someone who couldn't afford much snuff or was trying to cut back, so they bought a smaller but still stylish box. 
All of these boxes still have the smell of tobacco lingering on them, leaving me with no doubt that they were snuff boxes. Despite not smoking or partaking in tobacco myself, I find these objects compelling as they were such an ingrained item that most 19th-century men would have on hand. They were personal objects, as shown by an endearing addition to the second box: 

The initials E.A.L have been scratched into the underside of the lid of this box. What name they stood for is lost, but we do know that whoever owned it was determined that people would know it was his.
I wondered if the metal oval on the lid was a place for initials to be engraved; perhaps E.A.L couldn't afford to have it done or didn't want to for one reason or another. Or the oval is merely decorative.

Whatever may be the case, these little boxes have a lot of story to tell as practical domestic objects which bare the Victorian taste for making mundane items beautiful, and they are a part of my collection that I hold very dear.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

W. Woods Areca Nut Toothpaste

Potlids are a staple of 19th-century pharmaceutical antiques, with the most common, in my experience, being toothpaste containers. Some time ago, I was lucky enough to find a fragment of a lid while mud larking that still had some of the text on it. 

Pot lid fragment.

I guessed from the word "Enamel" that it must've been from a toothpaste pot, but I didn't look into it any further until I came upon the full version of the very same lid in an antique shop and recognised it from my fragment.

Woods Areca Nut Tooth Paste.

It's a particularly fine example, with only a slight crack on the left-hand side and free of any chipping. Although the rest of the lids in my collection have broken rims and evidence of repair, this one is nearly perfect. 

The found shard on top of the whole lid demonstrating the similarity.

W. Woods also made a larger pot lid at a higher price of one shilling or 1s. 
The smaller and more common lids, possibly because their smaller size makes them less likely to break, were a sixpence or 6d. 

W. Woods & Son was a Plymouth-based chemist that operated, as far as I can tell, throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. But according to "Antique Bottles Collectors Encyclopaedia", their pot lids get found all over the globe. This could be because they were exported, or people visiting other countries brought their toothpaste. I imagine it to be both. 

Other toothpaste, such as cherry flavour, existed, but areca nut seems to have been the favoured ingredient. The areca or betel nut was used in Arabia prior to its introduction to Britain in the 1800s. Traditionally, the nut is chewed to promote the strength of teeth and gums, though it leaves a blackish pigment in its wake. To counteract the staining, English pharmacists included betel nut charcoal in their toothpaste, though this rendered the actual benefits of the nut useless. So whether the areca nut toothpaste was effective at all is doubtful. 

(More on the usage of betel nut in toothpaste can be found in "Journal of the History of Medicine: Vol. 39, January 1984, Toothpastes Containing Betel Nut (Arec a catech u L. ) from England of the Nineteenth Century" By Peter A. Reichart - where I got my information for this post) 

Various potlids from my collection

Pot lids are a varied area of antique collecting, which I find particularly interesting as they encompass a day-to-day aspect of 19th-century life. They were items that would be kept in the house and considered ordinary, but thanks to the text that remains on them, a lot of history can be teased out of a small piece of ceramic. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

A hasty sketch of England's female Sociologist.

Whilst there's no online database as comprehensive as the Darwin Correspondence Project for Richard Owen's letters, the Temple university's Owen collection serves as a good starting point.

An interesting feature, particularly of the letters to Owen's wife (Caroline Amelia Clift/Owen) is the occasional drawing. This one caught my attention.

Letter of 1838 August 18

Mostly due to its crude nature, which made me laugh. I assumed it had to be someone specific but there wasn’t any clear attempt to get a good likeness. 

Luckily, the letter presented an answer. 

"The ocean arrived with her cargo of Philosophy, and I ought to add Literature for Harriet Martineau was on board (see the other side) about 3 p. m. "

So, it was Harriet Martineau. And whatever she was holding in her hand which is now lost to time, unless someone else can identify what that is. 

Martineau is regarded as England’s first woman journalist and her books helped form a foundation for modern Sociology. 

As her health declined in 1838, she moved to Newcastle in order to see her brother in law who was a well regarded doctor. 

The letter in which we find this picture is dated to the 18th of August 1838 and the location Owen provides is “Gateshead Rectory near Newcastle”. 

I’m not sure where the boat was coming from, and I don’t have enough resources on Martineau to cite whether or not the dates match up to when she would’ve been travelling, but nonetheless it’s an interesting tidbit. 

Another such item of interest is that Owen and Martineau shared a common acquaintance in Charles Darwin. Although Martineau was more familiar with Erasmus Alvey Darwin (Older brother to Charles) where there were some romantic prospects between them (Be aware racial slurs are used in the passage provided on Wikipedia.), though ultimately nothing came of it. 

Martineau was also impressed with Darwin’s 1859 work “On the Origin of Species” but seems to think his subsequent addition of “the creator” as an entity in the text was a mistake. 

"I rather regret that C.D. went out of his way two or three times to speak of "The Creator" in the popular sense of the First Cause.... His subject is the "Origin of Species" & not the origin of Organisation; & it seems a needless mischief to have opened the latter speculation at all – There now! I have delivered my mind." 


To me it seems as though her support of “On the Origin of Species” may have stemmed primarily from her desire to push more radical ideas into society. Though I consider that fair as Martineau had no particular focus on Natural History that I’m aware of. 

“I should much like to know how large a proportion of our scientific men believe he has found a sound road.”


Although 1838 was 21 years before the publication of “On the Origin” the differing views on the book between Owen and Martineau are interesting to note even if their relevance to one another was brief. 

I ended up learning a great deal that I otherwise might not have from the inclusion of this doodle in a letter 184 years ago. 


Addendum 16/08/2023     

I must amend an error, or at least an oversight on my part, in this post with regard to the curious item Martineau is holding. 
As it turns out, the answer was in a fairly obvious place: Owen's 1894 biography, written by his grandson, "The Life of Richard Owen", directly references this letter, and the author states after quoting the "Harriet Martineau, see other side", part: "(a sketch which represents that lady holding up a huge ear-trumpet) (Owen, 1894)."

So, there's that. I have read this biography before, but it was at the beginning of my prospective studies two years ago and clearly did not stay in my mind.  I am, however, glad that my re-read gave me the answer to what was apparently a burning question. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Ointment pots, their provenance and records thereof.

A semi-recent trip to GB Antiques left me with these ointment pots, no clue when they were from and some interest to find out more. At a glance, the only noteworthy thing about them is that they’re from the same chemist at two different addresses.

My best eyeballed guess was around the 1920’s with no grounding other than estimate based on the font, mould of the ceramics and usage of adhesive labelling. Unsatisfied with that as an answer I did some digging with the resources I had, and some interesting results came of it:

The owner of the pharmacy I traced back to Hedley Egbert Dwelly (1867-1940), (Unfortunately an Ancestry link is the best I could find as my record finding skills aren’t the sharpest) who also appears on pages 7 & 110 of ‘The registers of pharmaceutical chemists and druggists (1919)’ under his Chatteris address, although I can’t find anything similar for the Harlseden address except a court case for murder that took place on the 24th of June 1905 at the Old Bailey which reads: 

“HEDLEY EGBERT DWELLY. I am a chemist, of 41, Acton Lane, Harlesden- on Saturday, February 4th I sold a 4-oz bottle of carbolic acid to the prisoner- he took it away with him “

This tells me that he must’ve been working at the Harlesden address in 1905. I can't ascertain when he moved to the Chatteris address, but it does suggest the Harlesden pot is earlier than the Chatteris one. 

The contents of the Chatteris pharmacy appear to have been auctioned off in 1987 according to the information on this photograph. Which is presumably why I found these at the big antiques shop I went to. Also, why cursory google of the name mostly brings up Ebay listings for other bottles, pots and pharmaceutical bits originally held by the pharmacy.

On looking, the aforementioned photograph seems to predate 1917 with the Victorian looking jars on display as well as the colourful carboys in the window, which in the 19th century were used to show a Chemists competency by the ability to mix vivid colours. This translated their skill in a visual medium to shoppers who may not be able to read the signage due to illiteracy.

This interior seems outdated for 1917, to me. Although there could've been many reasons for it to stay so old fashioned. Possibly out of historical interest, it's definitely somewhere I would've been interested in visiting had it not been auctioned.

A page on the website of Cambridgeshire's archive shed some further light on the pharmacy itself:

“A Pharmacy since around 1800, 33 Park Street was owned by pharmacist Hedley Dwelly from 1917. From his death in 1940  his son Egbert ran the shop without  pharmacy registration selling patent medicines and agricultural medicines until around 1985. The contents and furnishings were as they were in 1917 and the building complete with contents was bought by a Dr Guy of Ely around 1985 who auctioned everything in 1987. This photo could be early 1980s.”

Perhaps the interior remained similar since it's founding in 1800 and Dwelly, being born in the 1860s, felt some interest in preserving it.

With the information from the CCAN website, the Chatteris pot can be dated from between 1917-1940. Which almost fits my initial estimation! No further luck on the Harlesden besides ‘at least 1905, before 1917’. But that’s better than an eyeballed estimate. 

I'm glad to have done the research, even if it didn't precisely answer my question it revealed an interesting piece of history I would otherwise not have known.

Further images of the ointment pots:

I have no idea what the numbering could represent. Odd that it's the same on both pots. 

Interestingly, the Chatteris pot looks older even though the dates of pharmacy ownership suggest otherwise. Though this could be my naivety in ceramics. 

Direct transcript of text on the pots: 
Pharmaceutical Chemist
33, Park St., CHATTERIS, Cambridgeshire 

Pharmaceutical Chemist 
41, Acton Lane. 
Harlesden. N.W. 

If anyone with more knowledge on the subject can offer further details about either the pots themselves or the pharmacy, that would be most welcomed.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Possible Portrait of Professor Owen

This painting by an unknown artist, painted in an unknown year is labeled on both Art UK and the Wellcome Collections library as “Sir Richard Owen (?)”. Though I have some doubts as to the identity of the sitter.

Wellcome Library no. 45766i

When consulting the references portion of the Wellcome Library entry I was only able to find one source for this painting being acknowledged and that was in the rather wordily titled

“Christopher Wright et al., British and Irish paintings in public collections, New Haven and London”

And sadly this is both out of print and I have not been able to gain access to it online. I suspect, however, that it wouldn’t answer my main concern about the provenance of this painting.

Which is that it doesn’t look much like Sir Richard Owen at all.

In fact, to me, it resembles Robert Owen the welsh philanthropist more than it does the biologist. Though I have no further grounds for thinking it's Robert Owen than that I've seen the two confused before.

(I was unable to find a definite source or bigger version of this painting. Although it was done by John Cranch)

(Natural History Museum, London)

(‘Portrait of Sir Richard Owen As a Young Man’ - Lancaster City Museum)

With examples of younger portraits of Richard Owen there are some notable differences in facial features to that of the unknown portrait, the hair is also seemingly lighter. Though this does not match younger paintings of Robert Owen either.

And the skull being held does point in the direction of someone involved in the medical field or natural sciences. Richard Owen was likely professor of comparative anatomy at St. Bartholomews at the time the portrait was painted. If it is indeed of him.

Without the artist's name and further examples of their work, there is no way to know if the sharp highlights in the hair are representative of the individual painter's style or if they just weren’t particularly good at drawing likenesses. So without more detailed information, I can’t come to a solid conclusion.

I would love to know the reasoning behind why this is thought to be Sir Richard Owen, as I may be missing insight that someone more well versed in identifying portraits has.

But as it stands, I suspect the portrait is of a different individual.