The Universal Conchologist exhibiting the figure of every known shell, accurately drawn and painted after nature ... Figures of nondescript shells collected in the different voyages to the South Sea since the year 1764
London: Thomas Martyn, 1789. 2 volumes in one, quarto. (13 1/4 x 10 7/8 inches). Parallel text in French and English. Engraved title and secondary title, both in French and English, engraved dedication to the King, 2 engraved plates of medals, 1 hand-coloured engraved frontispiece (the image within a gilt neo-classical border, as issued), 80 engraved plates finely hand-coloured in imitation of watercolours, each numbered in ink and protected by a facing guard of thin blank paper. Extra-illustrated with 19 hand-coloured variant plates, and a related 3pp. ALS tipped in at the front. (Without the two engraved Explanatory Table leaves found in some copies).
Near-contemporary red straight-grained morocco, covers with a gilt neo-classical border built up from fillets, a Greek-key roll and a decorative roll, neatly rebacked, the flat spine divided into six compartments by fillets, lettered in the second compartment, the others with a repeat decoration in gilt, gilt turn-ins, brown endpapers, gilt edges
Provenance: James Wiglesworth (Halifax, 1759-1826, inscription, dated 1818, presenting the book to his nieces); Elizabeth, Barbara, Mary and Dorothy Gorst (inscription); Arthur Blok (Rottingdean, Sussex, d.1974, 3pp. ALS, dated 7 September 1934, concerning the book from conchologist Alfred Santer Kennard).
A fine extra-illustrated copy of the second edition of one of "the most beautiful of all shell books, containing exquisite renderings of shells collected on Cook's three voyages and on other voyages, with specimens identified as having been obtained from New Holland, New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, and the Hawaiian Islands" (Forbes).
The present example is a second edition, dated 1789 on the title, containing a frontispiece, 80 plates, and 2 uncoloured plates of medals (one dated 1792): this according to Forbes is complete. In addition this copy is extra-illustrated with 19 very rare variant plates of images rejected for publication by Martyn. Copies of the Universal Conchologist exist with 160 plates but these "were apparently assembled rather than published and contain no letterpress text" (Forbes).
The engraved secondary-title ( Figures of Non Descript Shells, collected in the different voyages to the South Seas since the year 1764 ) makes clear the impetus that induced Martyn to publish his masterpiece. A highly lucrative market in shells from exotic lands had developed by the middle of the 18th century. The shells collected on Cook's voyages were greatly desired and when the specimens collected on the Third Voyage were offered for sale, one of their most enthusiastic buyers was Thomas Martyn. In a letter dated 9 December 1780, he wrote: "I may venture to affirm that I have purchased, amounting to 400 guineas, more than 2 thirds of the whole brought home. Nevertheless I do not abound either in variety of the new or many duplicates of the known ones that are valuable" (quoted in Dance, Shell Collecting [London: 1966], p.100). For the present work, in addition to his own collection, Martyn was also able to supplement where necessary with specimens from the other great collections of the time (the Duchess of Portland, the Countess of Bute, John Hunter and others). The Universal Conchologist is the only extant illustrated catalogue of the greater part of the shells collected on Cook's Third Voyage. From a scientific perspective, it is therefore an invaluable conchological record, much as Banks' Florilegium stands as a monument to the botanical discoveries made on Cook's First Voyage.
Martyn writes in his preface that he published the Universal Conchologist in an effort to counteract the "complicated systems, bad arrangements, and the practice of crowding many sheets of different families into one plate, [which] have not only confused the subject, and created a distaste to the science itself, but made it necessary that even the most experienced collector should have some clew to conduct him through those labyrinths of difficulties" ( Universal Conchologist , p.4). The shells on Martyn's plates are beautifully detailed and very clearly displayed, with only one or two different specimens per plate. They are also exquisitely coloured, with a particularly lavish application of colour which all but obliterates the faint printed bases. All are the work of an academy of young artists trained by Martyn himself; he recruited young men who showed artistic talent, and trained them so that there "would generally be found that uniformity and equality of style, conception, and execution which it would be in vain to expect from a variety of independent artists" (Martyn, quoted by P. Dance op. cit ., p.101).
The publication history of the work is complex in part due to Martyn halting production of the first edition and redrawing eighty plates. The present example includes 14 of these rejected plates, here bound adjacent to the published versions. They are printed on different paper to the published images and show differences in the way they are laid out on the page as well as variations in the colouring. An intriguing additional five plates with no corresponding counterparts in the published work, but very faintly titled on the versos in an unknown hand, are bound at the back of the volume.
This copy is accompanied by a series of early 20th-century offprints of articles on Martyn by W.H. Dall, T. Iredale and P. Dautzenberg, as follows:
1. William Healey DALL. 'Thomas Martyn and the Universal Conchologist', originally issued in the Proceedings of the United States National Museum , [Washington: 1905] Vol. XXIX, no.1425, pp.415-432. Stapled.
2. William Healey DALL. 'Supplementary Notes on Martyn's Universal Conchologist', originally issued in the Proceedings of the United States National Museum , Washington: 1907. Vol. XXXIII, no.1565, pp.185-192. Wrappers.
3. Ph. DAUTZENBERG. 'A Propos de l'"Universal Conchologist" de Thomas Martyn' originally issued in the Journal de Conchyliologie , Paris: 1917. Vol.LXIII, pp. 148-152. Upper wrapper.
4. Tom IREDALE. 'Unpublished Plates of Thomas Martyn, Conchologist' originally issued in the Proceedings of the Malacological Society, Hertford, England: 1921. Vol. XIV, part IV, pp.131-134. Wrappers.
BM(NH) III, p.1258; Brunet III, 1507; Ferguson I, 40; Forbes I, 176; Nissen ZBI 2728; Spence p.39.