Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Henley Archaeological & Historical Group

FOR the May lecture, the group welcomed Henley resident Professor Paul Henderson CBE, a distinguished earth scientist, to talk about the life and work of James Sowerby (1757-1822).

His lecture was entitled “Natural history leaps forward during the Enlightenment”.

Prof Henderson explained that in spite if his impoverished beginnings, James Sowerby became an outstanding and prolific natural historian and renowned illustrator — very much the David Attenborough of his day.

Sowerby’s exquisite paintings were so thoroughly detailed that written explanations of the component parts of plants, fungi, animals, fossils or minerals that he drew or engraved were almost superfluous.

Through his remarkable artistic skills and enthusiasm for all natural history, he became indispensable to scientists and collectors, his work coming at a time of heightened interest and discovery in the natural world.

Sowerby’s illustrations appear in many of the learned natural history tomes of the time — his most stunning achievement being his English Botany, which runs to 36 volumes.

His research met a wider, more enquiring public before the emergence of the works of the eminent natural historian Charles Darwin.

Prof Henderson reminded the audience that no other natural historian had matched Sowerby’s prolific output at this time and that his invaluable legacy and remarkable body of work remained as fresh and fascinating as when his artistic talent was first recognised.

Prof Henderson’s recent biography of Sowerby, The Enlightenment’s Natural Historian, was on display and members of the audience were able to peruse the beautifully illustrated artwork, letters and manuscript extracts — a fascinating and historical insight into the life and work of an unsung genius of his generation.

Henley palaeontologist and author Professor Richard Fortey describes Prof Henderson’s biography of Sowerby thus: “James Sowerby’s incomparable drawings raised natural history illustration to new heights. His range was immense: he portrayed animals, plants, fossils and minerals with equal accuracy and facility.

“Yet Sowerby is not as well known today as he should be. Paul Henderson’s splendidly illustrated biography places Sowerby back in the centre of Enlightenment science where he belongs.”

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