The Beauty of the Overlooked: Philip Henry Gosse’s Stunning 19th-Century Illustrations of Coastal Creatures and Reflections on the Delicate Kinship of Life


“These objects are, it’s true, among the many humblest of creatures which might be endowed with natural life… Right here we catch the primary kindling of that spark, which glows into so noble a flame within the Aristotles, the Newtons, and the Miltons of our heaven-gazing race.”


“Considering the teeming lifetime of the shore, we’ve an uneasy sense of the communication of some common reality that lies simply past our grasp,” the poetic marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote together with her thoughts perched on the water’s edge, considering the ocean and the which means of life in an period when the boundary between land and water marked the shoreline between data and thriller, between the mapped terrestrial world and a world nonetheless extra mysterious than the Moon.

Medusa from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Obtainable as a print, as a face masks, and as stationery playing cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

A century earlier, the poetic English marine biologist and naturalist Philip Henry Gosse (April 6, 1810&sprint;August 23, 1888), inventor of the seawater aquarium, prolonged a young and trailblazing invitation into the wonders of the water world in his 1853 treasure A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast (public library | public area) — an unusual marriage of scientific investigation and poetic presence.

Revealed the 12 months Gosse created and populated the world’s first pubic aquarium on the London Zoo — a decade after Anna Atkins walked these selfsame shores to gather the seaweed she rendered in gorgeous cyanotypes that made her the primary individual as an instance a guide with photographic photographs, a decade earlier than the younger German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the time period ecology and left Darwin wonder-smitten together with his beautiful work of jellyfish, and precisely 100 years after Carl Linnaeus created the trendy nomenclature of nature — Gosse’s lyrical information to the lifetime of the shore options twenty-eight exquisitely painted plates of marine creatures, labeled with their Linnaean names, “all drawn from dwelling nature, with the best consideration to accuracy,” comprising “about 2 hundred and forty figures of animals and their part components, in lots of cases drawn with assistance from the microscope.”

Jellyfish element from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Obtainable as a print, as a face masks, and as stationery playing cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Urging the reader to not count on “a guide of systematic zoology; nor a guide of mere zoology of any kind,” Gosse as a substitute provides an invite to contemplative companionship in energetic curiosity about and amid the dwelling world:

I ask you to hear with me to the carol of the lark, and the hum of the wild bee; I ask you to face with me on the fringe of the precipice and mark the glories of the setting solar; to look at with me the mantling tide because it rolls inward, and roars among the many hole caves; I ask you to share with me the pleasant feelings which the contemplation of unbounded magnificence and beneficence ever calls up within the cultivated thoughts.

Medusa from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Obtainable as a print, as a face masks, and as stationery playing cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Gosse made what he made — his visible artwork and the artwork of understanding we name science — within the spirit through which all real creators make what they make:

The next pages I’ve endeavoured, so far as potential, to make a mirror of the ideas and emotions which have occupied my very own thoughts throughout a 9 months’ residence on the charming shores of North and South Devon. There I’ve been pursuing an occupation which at all times possesses for me new delight, — the research of the curious kinds, and nonetheless extra curious instincts, of animated beings… Having conveyed pleasure and curiosity to myself, I believed would possibly entertain and please my reader.

Tide pool creatures from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Obtainable as a print, as a face masks, and as stationery playing cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

To the then-common, still-common, unconsidered objection that to bridge science and sweetness is “to degrade science beneath its correct dignity,” Gosse counter-objects with a sentiment of lyrical lucidity:

That the rise of information is in itself a pleasure to a wholesome thoughts is definitely true; however is there not in our hearts a chord that thrills in response to the gorgeous, the joyous, the right, in Nature?

On this poetic spirit, leaning on Wordsworth’s timeless pronouncement that “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all data [and] the impassioned expression which is within the countenance of all Science,” Gosse plunges into raptures about notably dazzling sides of those neglected animals, a lot of them wholly novel to human eyes. He kneels on the rocks to see into the “exceedingly charming” “pure vivarium” of the tide pool with its colourful underwater forest of seaweed, exults in discovering the valved mechanics of how Pecten opercularis — the queen scallop — climbs and leaps with its “delicate little foot,” marvels at its frilly microscopic gills, delights in its diamond eyes, “possessing all of the brilliancy of valuable stones.”

Lifeless man’s fingers coral and eye of scallop from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Obtainable as a print, as a face masks, and as stationery playing cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Every of the animals he describes — the mollusk and the medusa, the shrimp and the ocean lemon, the dinoflagellate and the useless man’s fingers coral — he describes with absolute reverence for its magnificence and microscopic magnificence, all of the extra enchanting for being so neglected.

Though, all through his life, Gosse struggled to reconcile science and faith, by way of this portal of creaturely awe he touched the fundamental reality to which his culturally conditioned thoughts blinded him — the unbroken hyperlink between these beautiful primitive creatures and ourselves. Six years earlier than Darwin uncovered the science beneath the kinship of life-forms in On the Origin of Species and a century earlier than Lucille Clifton celebrated the poetics of “the bond of stay issues all over the place,” Gosse exulted:

These objects are, it’s true, among the many humblest of creatures which might be endowed with natural life. They stand on the very confines, so to talk, of the very important world, on the lowest step of the animate ladder that reaches as much as Man; aye, and past him… Right here we catch the primary kindling of that spark, which glows into so noble a flame within the Aristotles, the Newtons, and the Miltons of our heaven-gazing race.

Jellyfish element from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Obtainable as a print, as a face masks, and as stationery playing cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Jellyfish element from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Obtainable as a print, as a face masks, and as stationery playing cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Medusa from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Obtainable as a print, as a face masks, and as stationery playing cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with Gosse’s compatriot William Saville Kent’s kaleidoscopic illustrations from the world’s first pictorial glimpse of the Nice Barrier Reef and the dwelling wonders rendered in Cephalopod Atlas — the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures, drawn from the epoch-making Valdiva expedition and revealed a decade after Gosse’s demise, upending the longtime perception that the ocean is lifeless beneath 300 fathoms: a testomony to the frequency with which each and every time we’ve let our self-referential creativeness restrict the complexity, range, and resilience of life, we’ve restricted the marvel of chance and we’ve been improper.


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