|Method||Etching with original hand colour|
|Published||London; Benjamin Wilkes, 1824|
|Dimensions||Image 230 x 200 mm vignette, Pl. 276 x 223 mm|
Little is known about Benjamin Wilkes, the author of The English Moths and Butterflies. In the preface to the work, he tells us that 'painting of History Pieces and Portraits in Oyl' was his profession, but that he often felt at a loss to understand what colours would contrast and set each other off to best advantage. Then a friend invited him to a meeting of the Aurelian Society, dedicated to the study of insects. Here, he first saw specimens of butterflies and moths which in their disposition, arrangement and contrasting colours struck him 'with amazement' and convinced him that nature would be his 'best instructor'. Over the next ten years he spent his leisure time collecting, studying and drawing caterpillars, chrysalids and flies, greatly assisted by the well known naturalist Mr Joseph Dandridge to whose collection he had free access. This publication was the culmination of this work, a perfect combination of artistic skill and specialist scientific observation.
Wilkes' first publication on the subject had appeared in 1742. Entitled Twelve new designs of English butterflies (1742), it contained no printed text but consisted solely of twelve engraved plates, depicting butterflies arranged geometrically in groups. It was published by Wilkes 'against the Horn Tavern in Fleet Street. Where any gentleman or lady may see his collection of insects'.
The English Moths and Butterflies was a much larger and more ambitious work. Its colour plates portray the complete life cycles of individual species on their host plants, while the accompanying descriptions contain details of their ecology, morphology and habitat. Although this first edition was undated, it was probably produced in 1749. Dedicated to the president, Council and fellows of the Royal Society in London, it was popular enough to warrant a further two editions. The second edition - basically a reprint of the first, with a different title-page - appeared in 1773; although the original blocks were again used for the illustrations of third edition of 1824, the type was completely reset and the text updated to incorporate the new system of Linnaean nomenclature.