Nature 2018 June

The day I met L. Hugh Newman and his Cabinets of Curiosity

I was reminded the other day by a television programme on the history of stamp collecting: how in this country there is a longstanding tradition and fascination with collecting. Philately itself started in the 1840s, pretty well at the same time as the first stamp was pasted onto a letter. The Victorians were obsessed with all sorts of collecting, cataloguing, and displaying.

At this time there was a desire amongst the growing middle classes to adopt the longstanding passion of the upper classes for impressing their peers by collecting a vast array of interesting objects gathered from their own travels abroad or, less dangerously, purchased from bespoke collectors. The items were secured in what was enticingly known as a cabinet of curiosity. In earlier times this was one or more rooms which you can still see in many stately homes and sometimes morphed into private museums which later became open to all, like the Tring Natural History Museum. For the middle class gentlemen collections were housed in modest bespoke free-standing furniture cabinets and display cases. Natural history was the popular theme of such collections and, as I have mentioned in previous articles, could be the result of obsession-driven collecting by the likes of Charles Darwin.

Amongst all ‘classes’ and generations today, fascination with amassing exhibits to create a natural history collection has largely cooled: just as well as wildlife stocks have savagely diminished or disappeared. Now, we watch wildlife documentaries instead, donate to or volunteer with conservation charities. Instead of an old-fashioned zoo trip to watch animals behind bars we visit wildlife reserves or safari parks. These days our houses are unlikely to contain a tiger pelt or stuffed bear, obtained by a brave gun-toting hunter. Instead the new obsession is the ubiquitous selfie, capturing that intimate moment when human encounters wild beast in close up! Our ‘cabinets of curiosity’ are no longer impressive furniture items. In a virtual world they are represented by superfast broadband downloadable TV programmes. Our digital images are transferred via smartphone apps, shared on social media sites and archived not in glass-topped drawers but computer hard drives and in cloud-connected virtual servers.

Many of the now older age natural history television presenters, like Bill Oddie and even David Attenborough, have admitted that part and parcel with their youthful enthusiasm for natural history had been animal collecting for sale to zoos or ‘egg collecting’ direct from the hedgerow: both at the time respectable and legal pursuits. No doubt if I had been brought up in a rural setting I might be guilty of harvesting the odd egg too but growing up in a leafy London suburb my collecting habits, honed by my amateur naturalist father, revolved around insects. At times we had more large jars than the average sweet shop. Each housed a different species of moth, stick insect or praying mantis – not quite like Gerald Durrell’s house on Corfu! One mass escape was foiled when I returned home from school to find the caterpillars of the Processionary Moth had left their container. These insects have now become notorious for their plague-sized outbreaks in cities and irritating itchy hairs dispensed on anyone touching them. The caterpillars were soon found marching ‘head-to-toe’ around the top of a lamp shade.

We lived near Primrose Hill in north London and the eponymous park nearby was an attractive habitat for bugs. Every so often we went on day-long expeditions to urban wildernesses such as those bomb sites not uncommon across London at the time. I say wilderness but it provided an oasis for the fast growing plants which invaded and colonised the wastelands. The chief insurgent at that time was the Rosebay Willowherb and a prime hunting ground to locate the prize of a Large Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar. How did this moth get its ‘Elephant’ moniker? Well, it is an evolutionary-driven adaptation. Its caterpillar has a prehensile front end that extends like a trunk and when combined with very realistic false eyes it was enough to scare-off a predator bird or a young, faint-hearted lepidopterist. The moth (see photo on inside front cover) has the most beautiful pink colouration on wings and body, just like the inflorescence of its foodplant. Whereas the flamingo sustains its rosy plumage by making use of the pigments it ingests from the lake-dwelling shrimps, I often wondered if the moth’s pink colour was somehow connected to the rosy pink inflorescences of the willowherb.

When my Dad and I felt we needed to top up our stocks of insects other than by foraging trips there were two other favourite excursions. First a visit to the Amateur Entomological Society annual exhibition, in those days hosted at a school in Farringdon: as wondrous an experience then as it still is today at its newer home, Kempton Park Racecourse. The other excursion was to visit one of the many serious collectors who advertised their stocks of available eggs, caterpillars or pupae in society newsletters.

Of all the entomologists of the day, by far the most eminent was the redoubtable L. Hugh Newman. Like his father, Newman was a renowned expert who collected widely from intrepid expeditions. He penned articles in the journals of learned societies, wrote numerous volumes for the professional or amateur collector and also books both adults and children could enjoy. He was a regular on the radio alongside Sir Peter Scott long before David Attenborough was making a name for himself. Recently I found out that Winston Churchill was a regular customer and that he also rented a section of the Bentalls store in Kingston. There he sold all sorts including his specially preserved butterfly specimens that were attached on stout wires so they could be included in floral displays.

One of his books that we owned showed him at his home surrounded by live specimens and ones preserved in cases. As we had also heard he would welcome visitors by prior appointment to his ‘Butterfly Farm’, we wrote and were granted an invitation to his home in Kent. As we turned into the road his large detached house stood out as the only one with muslin bags the size of large pillowcases enveloping many of the branches of the front garden trees and shrubs. We were able to see inside several of his own cabinets of curiosity with vast numbers of preserved specimens. He went on to entertain us regally with a tour of his impressive livestock within containers and the muslin sleeves and received lots of advice on how to improve the husbandry of our insects. We departed spellbound, our knowledge greatly expanded, and loaded up to the gunnels with our new purchases.

The next few months from early evening onwards is prime-time for spotting some of the UK resident and migrating Hawk Moths, though others are now extremely scarce. There are a few day-flying species such as the Bee Hawk Moths which are frequently seen visiting our gardens in the Summer. Overall, they are a very varied family all spectacular in their own right because of their size, striking colours and markings.