Four exceptional collections have joined The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens through the generosity of the Library Collectors’ Council, a group of supporters who help fund the purchase of new items for the institution’s archives. The recent acquisitions include a microscopic manuscript-cum-drawing created for a French princess in the 17th century, an 18th-century album illustrating the royal production of tobacco powder in Spain, an 1810 manuscript account of a United States naval officer’s voyage down the Mississippi River, and an illustrated 18th-century scientific volume on the butterflies and moths of Georgia.
“We’re enormously grateful to the Council for its commitment to helping us grow our library and archival collections,” said Sandra Brooke Gordon, Avery Director of the Library at The Huntington. “Since its inception in 1998, this discerning group of supporters has raised more than $6 million and used it to purchase scores of distinguished rare books, manuscripts, photographs, and other bibliophilic treasures. This year’s trove is marvelously diverse and will serve researchers and the visiting public long into the future.”
The Council’s annual meeting was held last month. Highlights of the newly purchased materials include:
A Microscopic Drawing with a King-Sized Message
“At first glance, this drawing appears to be nothing more than a smattering of mundane European emblems: a woman on a chariot, angels, Hercules, and a lion with a crest,” said Vanessa Wilkie, William A. Moffett Senior Curator of Medieval Manuscripts and British History and head of Library Curatorial. “It is only upon closer inspection with a powerful lens that a viewer discerns that the drawings are not composed of mere lines of stone-colored inks.”
Instead, the intricate strokes are microscopic letters that form an Italian poem of 6,800 verses lauding Marie Anne Christine of Bavaria (1660–1690), wife of Louis de France (1661–1711), the heir apparent of King Louis XIV (1638–1715). Royals across Europe were accustomed to poets celebrating their grandeur with hyperbolic verse and artists skillfully casting them as godlike, but this masterwork is unique because it was explicitly meant to be read with a new scientific tool: the microscope.
The text is also duplicated in an accompanying contemporary volume, making it possible to read the poem and view the image together. The work was meant to encourage Marie Anne Christine to persuade her husband to be sympathetic to papal causes at a time when the French monarch and Catholic leadership were politically at odds.
“This drawing is one of the finest surviving examples of early modern microscopic writing,” said Joel Klein, Molina Curator for the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. “A testament to the essential interdependence of art and science, this unique drawing is also a technological achievement and an object of wonder, demonstrating the potential of microscopy to reveal hidden details and new perspectives.”
Many questions remain about the specific tools and techniques that artists used to produce such exquisitely detailed manuscripts, and the text of the poem is untranslated and unpublished, making this peculiar item ripe for further study.
The drawing will help historians expand the understanding of political messaging and invite comparison with other materials in The Huntington’s collections—especially miniature books and cryptographic manuals.
Tobacco, a Royal Revenue Source in 18th-Century Spain
“This late 18th-century Spanish album offers 15 watercolor illustrations of a royal factory for the processing of tobacco, the most valuable agricultural commodity from the Americas and second only to silver as the most important source of royal revenue,” said Clay Stalls, curator of California and Hispanic Collections.
The album was most likely a presentation piece to glorify the tobacco factory’s patron, who was possibly Spanish King Carlos III (1716–1788). The album’s cover bears his coat of arms.
The tobacco factory depicted in the album is thought to be the Royal Tobacco Factory in Seville. The millstones in the drawings provide a clue because they are associated with the Royal Tobacco Factory and were developed by a resident engineer there. Also, in one of the drawings, a worker’s hat is inscribed with “Cs. III,” an abbreviation for Carlos III. The king built the factory for the drying, cutting, grinding, and sifting of tobacco primarily from Cuba. It was the second largest building in Spain and demonstrated the importance of the tobacco industry to the crown.
The album’s full-page illustrations extensively portray the inner workings of the factory, from the techniques of production to the administrative forces involved. Its visual documentation of the commodification of tobacco supports studies on the regulation of such commodities as salt and such enterprises as mining in Spanish Colonial Mexico. The album also provides more context to the Library’s holdings on the history of tobacco, which include at least 10 proclamations on the royal tobacco monopoly in 18th-century Mexico.
A Natural History of Butterflies and Moths
“This beautifully illustrated book is the first work devoted to American lepidoptera, the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths,” said Daniel Lewis, Dibner Senior Curator for the History of Science and Technology.
The book’s London-born author, John Abbot (1751–ca. 1840), became a professional natural history collector and illustrator, supplying specimens and paintings throughout Great Britain. In 1773, he emigrated to Virginia and then settled in Georgia, where he took part in the American Revolution. Although he rendered thousands of watercolor drawings of American flora and fauna, The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia is his only published work. It was prepared by James Smith, the president of the Linnaean Society, who verified the species and added his own notes. In his preface, Smith writes about how this is the first treatise on the entomology of North America.
Lewis said: “These plates—engraved by J. Harris from Abbot’s original drawings—are some of the finest ever made of butterflies and moths. They are especially notable for including all the stages of metamorphosis, along with the food plants of the species.”
The Library’s holdings on butterflies range from medieval butterfly illustrations in early manuscripts to their presence in the background of such landmark works as Audubon’s Birds of America and 20th-century field collectors’ notebooks from Central America. One of the largest and most important taxa on the planet, butterflies are harbingers of climate change and intricately involved in ecological engagements with other species.
“This work serves as a cornerstone to the Library’s interests in insects and climate change, as well as a useful adjunct to the environmental work of The Huntington’s Botanical Gardens,” Lewis said.
From New Orleans to Rio de Janeiro: The Diary of John Shaw and Letters by Francis Hoyt Gregory
“This collection—a rich archive of a remarkable naval family—is an extraordinary find,” said Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History.
Ever since the Irishman John Shaw (1773–1823) arrived in Philadelphia in 1790, his life was inextricably joined with the fledgling American Navy. His first two decades in America were spent fighting the Quasi-War (an undeclared naval war between the United States and France fought from 1798 to 1800) and the First Barbary War (1801–1805), as well as helping to establish the first naval base in New Orleans and commanding the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
On July 7, 1810, Shaw received President James Madison’s orders to proceed to New Orleans to resume the command of the naval base there. On Aug. 8, as he was about to leave Norfolk, he started the diary of his journey from Virginia to Louisiana.
His accounts of the barely surmountable challenges faced by the pilot navigating a heavily loaded flatboat are interspersed with descriptions of military forts and other structures, along with his encounters with military commanders, townspeople, boatmen, and Native Americans.
For part of the journey, Shaw traveled with his 10-year-old daughter Elizabeth. A decade later, Elizabeth would marry Connecticut-born Francis Hoyt Gregory (1789–1866), a U.S. naval officer who had distinguished himself fighting in the War of 1812. In 1844, Gregory assumed the command of the USS Raritan, which was assigned to the Brazil station. His letters from 1845 shed new light on the history of the naval force, which at the time was actively involved in suppressing the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The collection also includes letters that Elizabeth wrote to her husband in 1842, when he was commanding the USS North Carolina, providing insight into the social life of New Haven.
“This exceptional, little-known collection is a fitting addition to The Huntington’s renowned holdings of primary source material describing the naval, political, military, social, and intellectual history of the early republic and antebellum America,” Tsapina said.
Kevin Durkin is the managing editor in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.