17 September 2020

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This week’s blog continues the theme of great women illustrators represented in Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection. Emmanuel’s rare copy of The Freshwater Fishes of Great Britain, ‘Drawn and Described by Mrs T. Edward Bowdich’ (1828), is the work of a woman illustrator of natural history remarkable not only for the quality of its painting from life but also for the prodigious industry that it involved.

That, however, was wholly characteristic of this most intrepid Victorian woman.

Sarah Bowdich or Sarah Lee, née Wallis (1791-1856), was the daughter of a grocer and linen-draper in Colchester, where she grew up loving the countryside, riding and fishing. Her parents were well-to-do, property-owning non-conformists, but her father went bankrupt in 1802 and the family moved to London. Here Sarah met and married Thomas Edward Bowdich (1791-1824), who was to become a celebrated, if short-lived, African explorer. Appointed to the Royal African Company, he sailed in 1815 for Cape Coast Castle (a slave-trade depot, now in Ghana), and Sarah followed in 1816 with their new-born daughter. During the voyage she caught a shark and helped put down a mutiny, but she arrived only to find that in the meantime her husband had returned briefly to England. While she waited for him to re-join her, Sarah studied the local culture and natural history, but her baby died of fever. Her husband then secured his reputation with an expedition inland to the Ashanti kingdom, and by the time of their return to England Sarah was the first European woman to have collected plants systematically in West Africa.

To prepare for another African expedition the Bowdichs settled in Paris in 1819 to study natural science and were kindly treated like family members by the celebrated savant, Baron Georges Cuvier. To support themselves the Bowdichs published English translations of French works, illustrated by Sarah. In 1822 the Bowdichs embarked on their second African expedition, pausing for fifteen months in Madeira to study its natural history. But soon after reaching Bathurst in Gambia, Thomas Edward Bowdich died of fever in 1824.

Penniless, and by now with three young children with her in Africa to support, Sarah Bowdich set herself to make a career of her art in natural history; she was to become a popularizer of natural history much read in her time. Back in London, she published in 1825 her husband’s last work on Madeira with additions of her own. Her descriptions of new species and genera of fish, birds and plants established her as the first woman known to have discovered whole genera of plants.

In 1826 Sarah Bowdich began the work for which she is now best known, The Freshwater Fishes of Great Britain. This included 48 plates depicting fishes, with accompanying text. The work had 50 subscribers, headed by the Duke of Sussex (sixth son of George III), and appeared in twelve fascicles of four plates each between 1828 and 1838. What is remarkable, however, is that each of the 48 illustrations in each of the 50 copies is an original watercolour by Sarah Bowdich, not a hand-coloured print, meaning that she had to produce some 2,400 watercolour illustrations for the project. It was a vast labour that drew on her command of natural history and art, not least because she worked from just-caught specimens. Her preface comments: ‘Every Drawing has been taken from the living Fish immediately it came from the water it inhabited, so that no tint has been lost or deadened, either by changing the quality of that element, or by exposure to the atmosphere’.  As she remarks: ‘The colours of the Trout are remarkably brilliant, but so fleeting, that in two minutes after they leave the water they are lost or changed …’.  Accordingly ‘I was lucky enough to avail myself of the skill of a friend, who supplied me with a succession of them as I sat on the bank, and by which I secured the tints in all their delicacy and brightness’. (Many an angler will envy both this friend’s skill and his consistency).  The consequent fidelity and lifelike quality of Bowdich’s illustrations were unique for her times and much prized. The book is now rare, and the particular ‘state’ represented by Graham Watson’s copy is rarer still. As well as his complete copy, Graham Watson also cleverly collected a stray copy of one fascicle dated 1838, ten years after the project’s start. This enables us to compare two of Bowdich’s depictions of a bull trout, and the comparison perhaps suggests the toll taken by completing thousands of watercolours for this project.


Mrs T. Edward Bowdich, The Freshwater Fishes of Great Britain (London, 1828); Plate 1: Stockbridge Trout; Plate 2: Roach


Mrs T. Edward Bowdich, The Freshwater Fishes of Great Britain (London, 1828); Plate 3: Perch; Plate 4: Barbel


Mrs T. Edward Bowdich, The Freshwater Fishes of Great Britain (London, 1828); Plate 5: Rickmansworth Trout; Plate 6: Bream


Mrs T. Edward Bowdich, The Freshwater Fishes of Great Britain (London, 1828); Plate 7: Rudd; Plate 8: Lamprey


Plate 9: Bull Trout (1828); Plate 10: Bull Trout (1838)

Sarah Bowdich or Sarah Lee (she married an assize clerk, Robert Lee, in 1826) published during her career 21 books and 22 short stories. Her Taxidermy (1820), Elements of Natural History (1844) and Anecdotes of the Habits and Instinct of Animals (1852) were on the Privy Council list of class books for national education, and in 1854 her achievements as a popularizer of natural history were recognized by the award of a Civil List pension of £50.

Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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