Last summer, I visited the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which is now part of Drexel University. Of course, I stopped in the gift shop, and I was drawn to note cards with nature prints on them: it was the delicacy of the prints that had caught me eye. The information on the back indicated that they were from a volume of nature prints in the ANS Library. They were done by Thomas Horsfield (1773-1859) in Java in the early part of the 19th century. I didn’t have time to look at them that day, but several months later when I was again in Philadelphia, I made an appointment to see the prints. Needless to say, the originals are even more impressive. They are very fine, with all the veins and even flower forms carefully delineated. In an effort to find out more Horsfield and the prints, I recently looked at a copy of the 1990 reprint of Horsfield’s Zoological Researches in Java and the Neighboring Islands; it includes a biographical essay on Horsfield by John Bastin, Emeritus Reader in the Modern History of South-East Asia at the University of London.
Horsfield was born in Pennsylvania, studied with a pharmacist, and then received a degree in medicine from the University of Pennsylvania. He served as surgeon on a merchant vessel that sailed to Java, and when he returned home, he decided to go back to Java to study its natural history. In 1801, he equipped himself and when in Java he gained support from the Dutch government for his explorations. Because of his medical background, his main interest was in finding medically useful plants, but he collected widely and studied the geology of the region as well. Over time, he became more and more interested in animals, especially after the British under Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles took over the administration of Java and Horsfield received support from the East India Company (EIC).
When he left Java in 1819, he went to England to continue his natural history work for the EIC. He worked on his collections and eventually served as curator at the EIC’s museum. By this time he had also gained the interest of Joseph Banks who was impressed by Horsfield’s plant collection and by the nature prints of over 400 plants that he had produced. In an earlier letter to Raffles, Horsfield had explained that since herbarium specimens often rotted in the tropics he decided to make prints as a way to document plant features. He applied ink to both sides of the specimen, folded a thin sheet of Chinese paper around it, and then burnished it. This gave surprisingly good print of both sides. In fact, Roderick Cave, the author of Nature Prints, writes that these are some of the best prints he has ever seen. So there was a very good reason they caught my eye in the ANS gift shop. There are three known copies of the prints, one at the Natural History Museum, London, one at the British Library, and the ANS volume, which was purchased by a Philadelphian and given to the library (Peck, 2014).
Horsfield, T. (1990). Zoological Researches in Java and the Neighboring Islands. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
Peck, R.M. (2014). Discovered in Philadelphia: A third set of Thomas Horsfield’s nature prints of plants from Java. Archives of Natural History, 41(1), 168-170.
Detail of Loranthus nature print from #625 in the Archives and Manuscripts Collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University