Charles Lyell and the Sowerbys

G.B. Sowerby and Charles Lyell discussing fossils. Drawn by Amy Jones.

Imagine this: Charles Lyell sitting with his friend George Brettingham Sowerby discussing and identifying fossils from Lyell’s last adventure whilst in a pair of plushy armchairs drinking tea. It is not known whether this is the case, but for me it is what immediately springs to mind when finding comments and identifications made by G.B. Sowerby which have been written on the back of display tablets. Some of these identifications seem to be in the handwriting of G.B. Sowerby himself. Whether this was G.B. Sowerby the elder or the younger remains to be discovered.

Reverse of specimen tablet with “Pollia fusiformis G.B.S.” as an example of G.B. Sowerby’s handwriting

Research on the Lyell Collection has revealed that G.B. Sowerby identified nearly 3,500 fossils for or with Charles Lyell, mainly between 1839 and 1841. These were mainly gastropods (snails) and bivalves (clams, mussels, and scallops). The majority were from France, but it seems Lyell called upon him to assist with identifications from many other localities.

Front of previous specimen tablet showing the fossil gastropods G.B. Sowerby identified

Now this is all well and good but if you are anything like me you will be wondering “well who were The Sowerbys?”  Read on to find out what is interesting and extraordinary about them.

The Sowerbys contributed massively to the field of natural history in many different disciplines. 14 members of the Sowerby family wrote and or illustrated over 100 works on botany, mineralogy, palaeontology, and zoology. They worked with or for most of the great names of natural history in the 19th century, including Charles Darwin.

James Sowerby was the man who started it all. Father to 9 children including James de Carle and George Brettingham I. James Sowerby was a naturalist and an illustrator. He had black eyes and was told by his mother that all the girls would die for him. He couldn’t see how he would kill with his eyes or make girls hearts ache, and so decided that he was in fact ugly, concluding that all the talks of heartaches and killings were untrue. James recognised himself as a genius, titling his childhood reminiscences ‘Myself or the progress of a genious’ (his spelling). He produced not only his well-known work on plants (English Botany) but also works on mycology (the study of fungi), conchology (the study of mollusc shells), and mineralogy.

James Sowerby_01.jpg
The “ugly” James Sowerby. Line engraving by Mrs D. Turner after T. Heap. From Wellcome Images. Accessed from here on 23 November 2016.

James de Carle Sowerby, the eldest son, was a mineralogist and illustrator. He studied experimental and analytical chemistry under Humphry Davy, and had the honour of assisting Davy with his experiments. James de Carle proposed classifying minerals according to their chemical composition, and by the age of 20 had named and arranged the collections of the Marchioness of Bath and other amateur collectors.

George Brettingham Sowerby I was a naturalist, illustrator, and conchologist. He became estranged from his family, with his name not appearing on family publications after 1822, and set up his own establishment working with natural history specimens. His son, George Brettingham II, was taken on by Charles Lyell in 1843 as his aid when in the USA. The name was passed down for 6 generations.

Charlotte Caroline Sowerby was the only daughter of George Brettingham I. She was a natural history illustrator with her high quality images present in The Illustrated Bouquet. Not only did she create botanical images she also illustrated a quartz crystal with asbestos inclusions, and volcanoes, proving it wasn’t just the men of the family who did the work!

Calceolaria Bouquet. Hand coloured zincography in The Illustrated Bouquet by Charlotte Caroline Sowerby. From The Illustrated Bouquet. Accessed from here on 23 November 2016

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