Catalogue description Artwork for 'Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles' and 'Monographie des Poissons Fossiles du Vieux Grès Rouge'

This record is held by Geological Society of London

Details of
Title: Artwork for 'Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles' and 'Monographie des Poissons Fossiles du Vieux Grès Rouge'

Drawings and watercolours of fossil fish by Joseph Dinkel and others, 1829-1845, the original artwork for Jean Louis Rudolphe Agassiz's 'Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles' (1833-1843/1844). and 'Monographie des Poissons Fossiles du Vieux Grès Rouge' (1844-1845).

Date: 1829-1845
Held by: Geological Society of London, not available at The National Archives
Other reference: See Bridson, Natural history MS resources 1980
Administrative / biographical background:

Jean Louis Rudolphe Agassiz, was born on the 28 May 1807 in Môtier, Switzerland, where his father was the local pastor. Between 1824-1829, Agassiz studied medicine at the Universities of Zurich, Heidelberg and Munich, during which he developed an interest in zoology, particularly the study of European freshwater fishes. In 1828 he published his first paper on the subject - a description of a new species of the genus Cyprinus (carp) -but the following year saw the issue of 'Selecta genera et species piscium quos in itinere per Brasiliam annis MDCCCXVII-MDCCCXX …' which contained descriptions of the species of fish found by the German naturalists Johann Baptist von Spix and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius during their expedition to Brazil between 1817-1820. On Spix's death in 1826, Martius had commissioned Agassiz to complete the work. However, it would be during Agassiz's research for his next planned work, a natural history of the freshwater fishes of Europe, when he began to compare the fossil forms found in Oeningen and Glarus, in Switzerland, and at Solnhofen, in Bavaria, that he would develop his lifetime's fascination with fossil ichthyology.

Louis Agassiz arrived in Britain during the autumn of 1834, having already received a welcome prize fund from the Geological Society to support him in his fossil fish researches, which he had been working on for two years (notably with the blessing of Georges Cuvier who had given Agassiz his research on the subject). George Bellas Greenough, the President of the Society, eager to help with such an important palaeontological and geological work, issued a call to the Society's Fellows to send examples of fossil fish to aid Agassiz and a room was set aside for the specimens to be copied. Agassiz's principal artist, the Austrian born Joseph Dinkel (c.1806-1891), spent his first few years in London splitting his time between the Society and the British Museum. Slavish copying was not the aim of the work. Instead the intention was to show the structure of fossil fish and, as Agassiz's classification system was primarily based on dermal features and appendages, the artist would emphasise the scales and fins in his drawings.

For the next decade, Agassiz continued to visit the palaeontological collections of Britain and Europe seeking out new specimens for his work. Those which were not sent to the holding centre of the Society or his publishing base at Neuchatel, Switzerland, were drawn in situ by one of Agassiz's commissioned artists. The cost of the research involved in such a major work, combined with the expensive colour printing techniques saw Agassiz accepting help from various friends and scientific figures of the time. Wealthy collectors such as Lord William Willoughby Cole (1807-1886), later the Earl of Enniskillen, and Sir Philip de Malpas Egerton (1806-1881) defrayed some of Agassiz's costs by having specimens from their fossil cabinets drawn by Dinkel at their own expense - the drawings becoming their property once Agassiz had had them copied onto lithographic stones. Despite this, Agassiz still had to sell his own natural history collection to the local authorities at Neuchatel to meet the high production costs, and with nothing left apart from the original artwork, which was of no further use once converted to lithographic images, these were next marked to be sold. Egerton originally approached the British Museum (Natural History) on Agassiz's behalf, but apparently meeting with little interest instead persuaded his brother, Lord Francis Leveson-Gower [later Egerton], later 1st Earl of Ellesmere, to purchase most of the drawings and paintings for £500 in 1843.

By the time the follow up volume 'Monographie des Poissons Fossiles du Vieux Grès Rouge' (1844-1845), had been issued Agassiz's interest had switched to other subjects such as his studies on glaciers and the ice age. In 1846 he left Europe for the United States where he widely lectured at the Lowell Institute, Harvard and Cornell Universities. Following a bout of ill health, Agassiz did briefly return to the study of Brazilian fish in the 1860s.

Agassiz died on 14 December 1873, aged 66.

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