On the wing

Jones 2

Since the 1920s the Museum has had in its care an original, unpublished manuscript containing over 1,500 beautifully detailed and colourful paintings of butterflies and moths. Known as Jones’ Icones, this one-of-a-kind work was created in the late 18th century by amateur Lepidopterist and retired London wine merchant, William Jones.

The paintings depict over 760 butterflies and moths from the collections of some of the most eminent naturalists in London at that time, including the founder of the Linnean Society, Sir James E. Smith and entomologist Dru Drury, as well as Jones’s own specimens.

A silhouette of William Jones
A silhouette of William Jones

In addition to being a beautiful work of art, Jones’ Icones is also an extraordinarily important document in the history of entomology and insect collecting in Britain. At the time Jones was making these paintings, many of the specimens he was depicting were being brought to Europe and described for the first time, most notably from Australia and the Oceanic region. Jones meticulously recorded these specimens through his paintings, and his work remains the only record of many of these important collections, a large number long-since destroyed, lost, or divided among private collectors.

The Icones was also consulted by a student of Linnaeus, Johann Christian Fabricius – the man credited as the first to describe over 10,000 insects. It is believed that Fabricius named over 200 species from the images in the Icones, citing Jones’ work in his publication Entomologica Systematica in 1791.

Large Copper from Jones Collection at the Museum
Large Copper butterflies (Lycaena dispar) from Jones Collection at the Museum

In spite of this manuscript’s huge importance to the history of entomology in Britain, it has never been made available beyond the reading room of the Museum’s archive. So now, after almost a century of failed or abandoned attempts, Jones’ Icones is available for all to see!

A plate from the Jones' Icones
A plate from the Jones’ Icones

As part of an HLF funded project, Flying Icons, which has been running since April 2013, all six volumes of Jones’s Icones have been digitised and made available online. A website at www.jonesicones.com has also been developed in order to promote this amazing manuscript and the related collection here at the Museum.

This website also serves another very important function: to solicit help from keen amateurs and experts worldwide to help identify all the species represented in Jones’ Icones. Identification is the first step in tracking down extant specimens of some of Jones’ paintings. It may even change our understanding of the history of the science of entomology. Can you help? If you think so, request an account and we’ll set you to task!

If you’d like to read more about Jones’ Icones – and see some large scale prints – then head to the current exhibition in the cafe area of the Museum.

Kate Santry – Head of Archives and Library


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