A little look at our Engraved Portraits collection: some history and some fun.
Published on 1st November 2022
At the end of last year, the Photographic Portraits collection was highlighted as December’s Treasure of the Month. Almost a year on, another of the Society’s portraits collections is in the spotlight. This time, it is the Engraved Portraits (EP) collection that deserves a mention.
Using Tate’s succinct definition, ‘Engraving is a printmaking technique that involves making incisions into a metal plate which retain the ink and form the printed image’. The Linnean Society holds over 1,360 engraved portraits of over 850 individuals, with the engravings dating from the mid-16th to the early 20th centuries that include figures as far back as Socrates, Plato, Pliny the Elder, and Zenobia (Queen of the Palmyrene Empire).
The Engraved Portraits collection began with a donation of 766 engravings from Lord Arthur Russell (1825-1892), a Liberal Party MP for Tavistock and FLS, whose engraved portrait features in his collection. In his instructions to his executors, dated 21 January 1880, Lord Russell stated:
'I wish my Executors to give to the library of the Linnean Society, Burlington House, my collection of portraits of naturalists, botanists, zoologists & men of science, which I should grieve to see scattered again. Also I bequeath to the Linnean Society my collection of portraits of Buffon, contained in one Volume [quarto] large. I hope that the Linnean Society will value this gift & will preserve and add to, this collection.'
The collection came to the Society in 1892, upon Lord Russell’s death. In 1894, the collection went back to his wife Laura, who had written to say she had ‘found a few more “naturalists” in portfolios’ and had wanted to sort the collection, to add the newly-found portraits and check for duplicates. The collection was returned to the library later that year.
Lord Russell got his wishes – the collection has been preserved at the Society for all of these years, and it has been added to by others. Other significant donations include around 300 engraved portraits from Dr William Rushton Parker FLS (1853-1943), and many engravings of Linnaeus from William Carruthers (1830-1922) in 1897.
The entire collection was catalogued in 1980 by long-time Library volunteer Margot Walker FLS. Margot passed away in 2018, but she is remembered not only for this colossal cataloguing project, but for writing a brief biography of the Society’s founder, Sir James Edward Smith, for the Society’s 1988 Bicentenary.
Like the Engraved Royal Portrait series held by the Royal Collection Trust by which ‘most of the prints reproduce painted portraits, [and] constitute a comprehensive survey of the portraiture of monarchies of European nations’, so too does the Society’s collection represent the portraiture of naturalists over 300 years. According to A Bicentenary History, ‘…the Society has come to own one of the world’s most extensive collections of portraits of naturalists’.
Fun with the Engraved Portraits
The many faces of Carl Linnaeus
As many engravings are drawn from paintings, the true likeness of the subject depends on the talent of often at least three people – the original portrait painter, the one creating the drawing for the engraver (often indicated on an engraving by ‘del.’), and the engraver (often indicated by ‘eng.’ or ‘sculp’). Occasionally, engravings are even based on paintings that are copies of paintings!
Have a look at the wildly variable outcomes of engravings of Carl Linnaeus from the portrait of him painted by Alexander Roslin in 1775 in the gallery below. (The Linnean Society’s Roslin portrait is a copy painted by Laurent Pasch, on which some of these engravings are based.)
For those looking for this year’s Movember inspiration, look no further than our gallery of beards and moustaches. (Three cheers for the forked beard!)
Frills and Extras
What better way to enhance a portrait than with skulls, skeletons, random body parts, cherubs, or even mermaids?
And the winner for the best ruff goes to…
Johann Freitag, who dazzles in 1641, and then again in 1654.
Andrea Deneau, Digital Assets Manager
All images © The Linnean Society of London.
Most of the portraits can be found on the Library catalogue, with their images included.
Gage, A.T. & Stern, W.T., A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London (Academic Press, 1988)
Kendal Museum, https://kendalmuseum.org.uk/object-of-the-week-king-penguin/ [accessed 14/10/2022]
The Linnean Society of London, ‘Margot Walker’, The Linnean, April 2019, 35:1, https://ca1-tls.edcdn.com/Linnean_Vol-35_1_April-2019_Web.pdf
Royal Collection Trust, ‘Engraved Royal Portraits’, https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/highlights-from-the-print-collection/engraved-royal-portraits [accessed 14/10/2022]
Tate, ‘Art term: Engraving’, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/e/engraving [accessed 14/10/2022]