The Great Barrier Reef: Stunning 19th-Century Illustrations from the World’s First Encyclopedia of One of Earth’s Most Vibrant and Delicate Ecosystems
A symphonic hymn for our planet’s lushest underwater wonderland.
By Maria Popova
While the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel was salving his fathomless personal tragedy with the transcendent beauty of jellyfish, having enraptured Darwin with his drawings, his English colleague William Saville-Kent (July 10, 1845–October 11, 1908) was transcending his own darkness on the other side of the globe with the vibrant, irrepressible aliveness of the Great Barrier Reef and its astonishing creatures.
By the end of his adolescence, William had survived the unsurvivable. The youngest of ten children, he lost his mother when he was seven. While she was dying, his unscrupulous father was having an open affair with the children’s nanny, whom he went on to marry. Three more children came. Then, just before William’s twentieth birthday, his toddler half-brother disappeared from his bed in the middle of the night. His body was found in the vault of the outhouse, savaged by multiple stab wounds. His nursemaid — with whom William’s father was already having an affair — was at first arrest, then released; suspicion was diverted toward William’s sixteen-year-old sister Constance. She was detained, but released on account of favorable public opinion. A Scotland Yard detective became obsessed with the case and prosecuted her for murder five years later, eventually extracting a confession and making national headlines with true crime sensationalism. Caroline was sentenced to twenty years in prison. But many — including Charles Dickens — mistrusted the confession, having suspected the volatile, perfidious father all along. He was never brought under investigation.
William was shaken by the inordinate share of loss, violence, and public shame he had accrued in so young a life. Taking refuge in the impartial world of science, he came to study under the great biologist and comparative anatomist T.H. Huxley, who had coined the term agnosticism and who had so boldly defended Darwin’s evolutionary ideas against the reactionary tide of opposition a decade earlier.
Upon completing his studies, Saville-Kent received an appointment in the Natural History department of the British Museum as curator of coral. He grew enchanted with these beguiling, poorly understood creatures; he also grew bored with the museum position — he longed to do research, to contribute to the evolving understanding of these living marvels.
At twenty-five, he won a grant from the Royal Society to lead a dredging survey off the coast of Portugal, trading in the lifeless stillness of museum specimens for the coruscating aliveness of the marine world. Upon his return, he could only continue working with living species. Over the next decade, he took a series of job as various aquariums, but his imagination continued reaching for the unglassed sea.
As Saville-Kent approached forty, his old mentor T.H. Huxley — by then the most prominent British life-scientist after Darwin’s death a year earlier — recommended him as inspector of fisheries in Tasmania. Saville-Kent left England and the dark specter of his youth for the bright open seas of the South Pacific, where he grew newly enchanted with the lush underwater wonderland of strange-shaped corals and echinoderms, frilly anemones and tentacled mollusks, fishes in colors that belong in a Kandinsky painting, creatures he had marveled at only as dead and disjointed museum specimens or segregated aquarium captives, creatures he had never imagined.
Determined to bring public awareness and awe to this otherworldly ecosystem — an ecosystem that in the century since his time has grown so gravely endangered by human activity that it might not survive another century — he authored the first popular science book on that irreplaceable underwater world. In 1893, several years before the German oceanographer published the gorgeously illustrated first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Saville-Kent published The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities — a pioneering encyclopedia of one of Earth’s most luscious and delicate ecosystems, illustrated with a number of Saville-Kent’s black-and-white photographs and several stunning color lithographs by two artists, a Mr. Couchman and a Mr. Riddle, based on Saville-Kent’s original watercolors. (This, after all, was the gloaming hour of that golden age when scientists were also trained as artists, which enabled them to advance their own discoveries in sometimes epoch-making ways.)
Complement with the self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell’s stunning illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants, published a century and a half earlier, and the inspiring illustrated story of the man who set out to save the world’s coral reefs with hammer and glue a century and a half later, then revisit these 19th-century tentacled wonders from the ocean depths and Haeckel’s otherworldly jellyfish.
Published May 11, 2020