Iconotypes: A Compenduium of Butterflies & Moths

William Jones

Introduced by Richard I Vane-Wright

Thames & Hudson/Oxford University Museum of Natural History, £65

Review by Brian Morton

Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne was first published in the year of the French Revolution and has never been out of print since. It remains the most-read work of natural history in English and yet, how many have noticed that Reverend White, for all his obsessive notation of animal comings and goings, never mentions butterflies or moths? It’s unthinkable that such a great noticer simply failed to register them. Can it be that the old parson simply thought them too flagrantly showy, nature’s hanky-flaps or subjects fit only for bored children with a paintbox?

William Jones was a contemporary. Co-founder of the Linnaean Society, he began his study of butterflies in the 1780s and completed the final paintings of nearly 1300 in the early 1800s, by which time White was lying in St Mary’s churchyard. The work of Icones is, as Richard I Vane-Wright says in his new introduction, “more than an Enlightenment curiosity”. It is a part of a broad intellectual effort to categorise and taxonomise nature, and in the process come up with a reliable science of colour.

The Danish entomologist Johan C Fabricius examined Jones’s evolving archive and used it as the basis for his 1793 (the year White died) Entomologia systematica, one of the foundation works of modern systematics. The original Icones has, remarkably, gone unpublished. Until now, it had to be viewed in Oxford, or in a rare 1970s edition on 35mm film stock, or more recently, online.

HeraldScotland: © University of Oxford, Museum of Natural History. The males of the African giant swallowtail can have a wingspan of over 23 cm (9 in.) making it the largest butterfly in Africa and one of the largest in the world.© University of Oxford, Museum of Natural History. The males of the African giant swallowtail can have a wingspan of over 23 cm (9 in.) making it the largest butterfly in Africa and one of the largest in the world.

Finally published as Iconotypes – an enhanced facsimile edition – its impact is exactly that of a clever child’s colouring book. It’s almost impossible to believe that some of these creatures ever flitted from flower to flower, and indeed some of Jones’s specimens do not – or no longer – accord with any known species; the boldly barred Charaxes pelias may have been confused with something else.

There are familiar European butterflies here, skippers and arguses and fritillaries and admirals, all introduced formally in Latin rather than under their common or local names. Originally drawn at life-size, they help avoid the kind of scale-error that leads many of us to miss the smaller butterflies, like the little skipper or small blue, because they don’t fit our expectation of size.

Butterfly hunting, and the kind of nerdy encounter documented a few years ago by Judith Hooper in Of Moths and Men, has long been caricatured as eccentric: middle-aged men in spectacles and baggy shorts galumphing round meadows with big catch-nets; casting calls for Benny Hill or Charles Hawtrey.

The actual work of entomologists like William Jones requires meticulous attention to detail and to tiny gradations of change now easily separated by macro photography and DNA analysis. The sheer intellectual as well as physical effort of gathering together a body of knowledge such as Icones cannot be underestimated, and nor can its collaborative nature, for every entry has a secret sharer in the name of the explorer and collector, be it Dru Drury or Sir Joseph Banks, James Edward Smith or John Francillon, who first recognised and gathered the specimens.


A recent survey has shown that butterfly numbers in Britain have taken a further alarming dive. Even those of us who keep areas deliberately unruly to attract them have to fight against the psychological principle of baseline shift, by which the numbers we think we remember from “childhood” probably refer more to what we saw 15 years ago rather than 50. We’d be doubly shocked if we were able to experience again how rich and varied our insect life once was.

COP26 probably didn’t spend much time on lepidoptera. Like White apparently, politicians almost certainly regard butterflies as less significant than whales and tigers and struggling migratory birds. But they are, to mix metaphors, the coal mine canary of natural history and it would be depressing beyond belief if in 50 years’ time, the only place we could view these lovely things were through Jones’s Icones, some of whom are, inevitably, extinct already.