Tuatara: Volume 30, Issue 1, December 1988
Book Review: — William Swainson of Fern Grove, F.R.S., F.L.S., & c - The Anatomy of a Nineteenth-Century Naturalist
William Swainson of Fern Grove, F.R.S., F.L.S., & c - The Anatomy of a Nineteenth-Century Naturalist
It is hard to explain exactly what it is about the English naturalist William Swainson that makes him such an attractive subject for biographers, historians and biologists. By some measures he was not a great success, either scientifically or financially. He was the ardent supporter of a long ago defunct system of classification and had a personal life dotted with adversity and occasional tragedy. His retreat in late 1840 to Lower Hutt, New Zealand and virtual obscurity, could be seen as bordering on failure.
However there was more to Swainson than this introduction suggests. He was one of those who pioneered the use of lithography for natural history ilustrations, a medium that was cheaper and more flexible than engraving, and he was an accomplished naturalist with a string of species descriptions to his credit. As an author he was prolific, although not always as careful as he should have been. He was a colourful, if sometimes quarrelsome figure, inhabiting a period that constituted the heyday of natural history in Britain.
There were few amateur naturalists living in the Wellington area at the time of Swainson's arrival here, but those that were might have been forgiven for thinking that someone with his background would help nourish and sustain a local forum for natural history. But such hopes, if they existed, were ultimately dashed. There were initially promising signs: his contact with Walter Mantell, the expedition on the Acheron, the exsiccatum of ferns-but the flicker of interest in natural history matters was virtually extinguished with an intemperate letter to Mantell declining honorary membership of the New Zealand Society. Swainson's energies were largely directed at maintaining himself and his family in a testing environment. Such spare time as was available was spent in executing a large number of sketches of New Zealand bush scenes, mostly in the Wellington district.
We are fortunate, in New Zealand, in having a large amount of Swainson material in public collections or in the hands of his descendant Geoffrey Swainson who co-authored this volume with Sheila Natusch. Examination of the New Zealand material with that held overseas has produced a lively account, providing numerous insights into the personality of this irascible naturalist.
This privately published work will be a useful addition to an increasing list of Swainson biographies and evaluations of his scientific and personal life, but one shares with the authors their regret in not being able to provide a more attrative setting for all their hard work. The illustrations in particular have suffered from the reprographic process employed, and some are barely discernible. Their more selective use and exclusion from such places as the Sources and Summaries section might have provided a tidier result. It is not clear what the value is of reprinting the working documents from microfiche in a form that is almost illegible; a less cumbersome means of identifying source material could perhaps be found. These, and other idiosyncracies of design can occasionally be disconcerting, but do not detract too greatly from the work as a whole. The authors, in their plight of inadequate publication resources, invite our tolerance. This is gladly given.
School of Biological Sciences. Victoria University of Wellington.