“Conchology or Testaceology is the science which treats of the structure, appearance, properties and methodical arrangement of shells, the external testaceous covering of certain molluscous animals.”

So says The Rev. E.I. Burrow in his book from 1815.  With its 28 plates “drawn from nature” Burrow’s Elements of conchology wants to introduce shell collectors to the Linnæan system. My favourite section of the book is entitled “Trivial names” where he lists the Linnaean names of shells next to the English versions. (Nodosa is known as the ducks-foot, Pyrum the turnip, and Arcularia as Fingers and thumbs). The plates contain illustrations of a range of shells with each specimen illustrated getting a full description in the accompanying text. These pictures, although detailed when it comes to looking at the hinges of the shells, are fairly basic but usuable for identification purposes.

Burrows title page

Wood cover

Above we can see the title page of Burrow’s work and the colourful cover of Woods.

Another book in our collection, which is similar in make-up, is that of our old friend Rev. Wood. His book, The common shells of the sea-shore, also mentions the more common English names of some of the species (the weasel shell, the heart shell, sea-ear, wentle-trap, blunt bubble shell). It is a standard Wood product providing a guide to shells that can be found on any British beach.  Along with descriptions of the shells, where they can be found etc., he also gives bits of information such as the effects of eating a bad batch of muscles:

“….they have nettle-rash breaking out all over the body with astonishing rapidity; they become giddy, are seized with a kind of fit, and then fall insensible. Sometimes they are partly paralysed, and sometimes they are seized with asthma. In many cases, the symptoms have become so aggravated that the sufferer has been unable to bear up against them, and has died.”

The illustrations in Wood are much more detailed than in Burrows and the cover is a lot more fancy.

Boys plate

Let us now take a sandy-footed step back in time to another book in our collection on the subject of conchology. Boys and Walkers snappy titled: “A collection of the minute and rare shells lately discovered in the sand of the sea shore near Sandwich by William Boys .. considerably augmented, and all their figures accurately drawn, as magnified with the microscope by George Walker, bookseller, at Faversham.” (and this doesn’t mention the latin part of the title). This book is dedicated to Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715 – 1785) who was famed for her natural history collection. It was published in 1784 and contains a few folded plates showing the tiny shells that Boys found on a beach in Kent (see left). The book lists the shells and gives a brief description of each . There are a few folded plates in this volume containing images of the tiny shells. They are more detailed than the previous two volumes, especially the Burrows.

As we dance passed a rock pool and hear the waves gently beating on the shore we come across a book with the most wonderful plates. Seen as one of the founding fathers of conchology, along with Philippo Buoanni and Georg Eberhard Rumpf  (Dance, pg 21) Martin Lister examined shells in a more scientific way to previous authors. His Historiæ sive Synopsis methodicæ conchyliorum was published between 1685-1692 and contained four parts. It provides information on exotic land shells and slugs, freshwater shells and snails, bivalves, fossil snails, marine molluscs and their anatomy. The plates are beautiful and were drawn by Listers very talented daughters Susannah and Anna. Roos states that

“The work of Lister and his daughters set a new standard for conchology, such that the Historia ended up in constant use by taxonomists of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

The illustrations are made using copperplates and show the shells in great detail. The images were drawn not to capture a specific specimen but to demonstrate the features you needed to see to be able to identify that species. Here we can see the Lister Razorshell (right) in comparison to the ones from Wood (center)and Burrow (left).

Not only are the plates of shells beautifully drawn but the title page and boarders around the pages are outstanding too. Although this book would be too big to carry on a shell collecting beach trip it would be wonderful to have at home to help identify the shells being added to a collection. Here is a slideshow of some of the wonderful Plates. Enjoy!

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Books consulted:

Boys, W. and Walker, G. Testacea minuta rariora, nuperrime detecta in arena littoris sandvicensis / a Gul. Boys .. ; multa addidit, et omnium figuras ope microscopii ampliatas accurate delineavit Geo. Walker = A collection of the minute and rare shells lately discovered in the sand of the sea shore near Sandwich by William Boys .. considerably augmented, and all their figures accurately drawn, as magnified with the microscope by George Walker, bookseller, at Faversham. (London : Printed by J. March; and sold by B. White .., Messrs. Scatcherd and Whitaker .., and W. Humphrey ..; and at Faversham by the author, 1784)

Wood, R.G. The Common shells of the sea-shore (London: Frederick Warne, (189?))

Burrow, E.J. Elements of conchology, according to the Linnaean system (London: Printed for the authoer, by Richard and Arthur Taylor, and sold by J. Mawe, 1815)

Lister, M. Martini Lister, Historiæ sive Synopsis methodicæ conchyliorum : quorum omnium pictura, ad vivum delineata exhibetur … (Londini : ære incisus, sumptibus authoris, 1685-1692)

Roos, A.M. Martin Lister and his remarkable daughters (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2019)

Dance, S. Peter. A history of shell collecting (Leiden: Brill, 1986)


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