Press "Enter" to skip to content

Lepidochromy: Butterfly Transfer Prints

In honor of Halloween and the very last day of Archives Month, we present you with this creepy cool look at an unusual printing example in our collection, one that uses the wings of real butterflies. This post was written by Daria Wingreen-Mason, Special Collections Technical Information Specialist in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History.

Waller -1
Dorsal and ventral views of specimen from Waller’s Butterflies collected in the Shire Valley East Africa (Biodiversity Heritage Library link)


Horace Waller was an English missionary and anti-slavery activist in the 19th century. In 1859 Waller joined the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA). As Lay Superintendent to the UMCA, Waller befriended the famous missionary Dr. David Livingstone and botanist John Kirk who were in Africa as part of the British government-funded Zambezi Expedition. Livingstone, as head of that expedition, and Kirk, as naturalist, together navigated the Zambezi River area between 1858 and 1863.  The purpose of the expedition was to chart the geography and catalogue the natural resources of the area. On 19 March 1863 Kirk wrote in his diary “Mr Waller is making a fine collection of insects, chiefly of the Lepidoptera”. Waller assembled this field book of the Butterflies collected in the Shire Valley East Africa (SIRIS record link) from his time there.

Waller was an amateur naturalist, but a clearly practiced one, who shared his collection with experienced naturalists such as Roland Trimen who later thanked Waller for showing him specimens from the Shire valley.

Waller - 2
Detail from Journal of science and annals of astronomy (v. 1, 1864, p. 651) “On the Butterflies of Madagascar”, by Roland Trimen.

The butterfly specimens in Waller’s field book were prepared by an infrequently employed technique termed lepidochromy in the 19thcentury. Lepidochromy involved using humidified, relaxed wings and an adhesive such as gum Arabic. By pressing the wings between two prepared papers the dorsal and ventral sides could be separated from each other and the scales, or “feathers”, would remain. Once mounted, the bodies of the insects were drawn in.  This type of transfer illustration is classified as a nature print.


Waller -3
Detail from Scientific American: Supplement v. 27: no. 697. (May 11, 1889, p. 11138)

Ninety years before Waller ventured into Africa, George Edwards published a group of essays in 1770 that included “A Receipt For taking the Figures of Butterflies on Thin Gummed Paper” This, or a slight derivation of it, was the method most likely employed by Waller to mount his “Flys”.  By 1889, refinements in the process of lepidochromy were outlined completely in Scientific American, Supplement. It was a simple but onerous process where in the wings were transferred twice so that the brighter outer layer of scales would be right side up when mounted

Printed volumes with nature prints were also published, but they were few. Printed editions were very labor-intensive and required hundreds and sometimes thousands of specimens. An immodest example is Sherman F. Denton’s two volume set of Moths and butterflies of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains (Boston, 1900) where more than 50,000 butterflies and moths were immortalized.

The scholarship on this humble field book continues. Dr. David Clough of the Namizimu Institute Mangochi Malawi recently inquired about the volume for exhibition after seeing the blog post, “The Art in Field Books” by Lesley Parilla. Dr. Clough then shared Waller’s butterflies with his colleague Dr. Lawrence Dritsas, a historian of science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. When the field book was acquired into the collection of Judge Russell E. Train in the late 20th century the authorship had been misattributed to Sir John Kirk. Dr. Dritsas has since properly identified the work’s creator as Horace Waller. Waller’s monogram is evident on the cover just below the title. From a book historian’s point of view, now the only remaining question is at what point was the field book’s authorship confused.


Waller -4
Title page/cover to Waller’s Butterflies collected in the Shire Valley East Africa (Biodiversity Heritage Library link)

Lepidopterists both at the Smithsonian and in Africa have also been consulted about the specimens and a complete and accurate list of the butterfly types have been identified by Dr. Clough and Smithsonian lepidopterists Dr. Robert Robbins and Mr. Brian Harris.

With thanks to Dr. Lawrence Dritsas from the University of Edinburgh, David Clough from the Namizimu Institute, Steve Collins from the African Research Institute, and Dr. Robert Robbins, Brian Harris, and Lesley Parilla from the Smithsonian Institution.

The Russell E. Train Africana Collection is housed in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History located the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.




  1. Please may I ask permission to use the blog post on Lepidochromy: Butterfly Transfer Prints in a forthcoming schools outreach event we are planning? The event is based around the theme of the Peppered Moth and the Industrial Revolution in Manchester, England. We recently discsovered examples of butterfly nature prints in an album in our Victorian ephemera collection and would like to use this blog post to explain what lepidochromy is in a handout I am preparing. I would give full credits to the Smithsonian blog for this.

    • Hi Jayne,

      You’re welcome to use our blog post for class hand outs. Glad you’ve found it useful!


      Erin Rushing
      Outreach Librarian

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.