Would a fine 19th-century British lady be likely to shriek and swoon onto a fainting-couch upon seeing these images of monstrous-looking insects?
Or would she eagerly pick up a paint brush and contemplate which colors she should use for the thorax and stinger?
The English author, physician and scientist John Hill (1714?-1775) was certain that the sight of an amazing creature like the Mottled Saw-Fly, with its bulging eyes and curly antennae, would catch the fancy of artistically-inclined ladies. How do we know? The following two-line advertisement printed on the title-page verso of Hill's book, A Decade of Curious Insects (London: Printed for the author, 1773; QL466.H646 1773 SCNHRB) provides the answer:
"Ladies who may chuse [i.e. choose] to paint these insects themselves may have sets of the cuts on royal paper printed pale for that purpose."
A prolific author renowned for his literary quarrels with such luminaries as the satirist Henry Fielding and the Shakespearean actor David Garrick, John Hill helped to popularize the study of natural history. These insects are carefully engraved in larger-than-life detail (their actual size is illustrated by the smaller versions at the foot of each plate). Hill proudly noted on the title page that his illustrations were created with the assistance of the recently invented "lucernal microscope," which used an artificial light source such as an oil lamp to enhance the magnification of scientific specimens.
Although none of the plates in the Cullman Library's copy of A Decade of Curious Insects are painted, there are other books in the collection that also attest to the talents and interests of female scientific illustrators. The best known is Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), whose artistry, skill, and love of nature—even in its most creepy-crawly aspects—is demonstrated in her gorgeous images of the insects and plants (see bottom plate) of Surinam in Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium (1705; fQL466.M57X SCNHRB).