butterfly collectorThey say butterflies are free.

That is unless you were a butterfly flitting around the garden at “Yallambee” in the mid-19th century. For then you would likely have found Robert Bakewell’s net landing over your head and a pin stuck rudely through your body onto a mounting card.

Robert Bakewell of “Yallambee” was an entomologist. He was, to coin a phrase, a bug catcher and by all reports, a catcher of some distinction. During his life time in Australia he developed a vast and important assortment of butterflies, moths and insects. Upon his return with his brother John to England in 1857, Robert Bakewell continued to add to this collection, purchasing and adding the M. de Laferte set to his own in 1860 when he was made a member of the French Entomological Society.

Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), daguerreotype, c1850, (George Eastman House Collection).
Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), daguerreotype, c1850, (George Eastman House Collection).

Upon his death on Christmas Eve in Nottingham in 1867, some of Robert’s specimens were left to his brother in law in Melbourne, Dr Godfrey Howitt, but the great majority of his collection was left to the British Museum. It’s still there. The register of the insect collections in the Natural History Museum in London records that 515 Buprestids and 2430 Llamellicorns were acquired from the collection of one, Robert Bakewell.

The Castaways of Gilligan's Island, referencing Robert Bakewell in their search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail butterfly, maybe.
The Castaways of Gilligan’s Island, referencing Robert Bakewell in their search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail butterfly, maybe.

The concept of collecting and classifying the natural world was a Victorian passion, often pursued by gentlemen in the privacy of their home libraries in an era when the definition of the sciences was still being determined.

Natural history specimens in the library at Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, NSW.
Natural history specimens in the library at Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, NSW.

The process involved naming and by implication, ownership of the natural world. This was an essential concept in the new world of the early Australian colonies where so much was alien and, under the terra nullius doctrine, supposedly without previous proprietorship.

The origins of this practice can be found right there at the start when the gentleman naturalist, Joseph Banks, hitched a ride on Cook’s first voyage of discovery. Somehow within the cramped confines of the HM Bark Endeavour of 1768, room was found for 20 strong wooden chests with hinged lids and locks in which were packed “all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing… many bottles with ground stoppers of several sizes to preserve animals in spirits”. With all those bugs on board, there would seem later hardly room left over for the ship’s crew. Maybe, not even a cook.

Perhaps history’s most infamous collecting voyage however followed 20 years later when the crew of HMS Bounty mutinied, aggrieved at their alleged treatment by the ship’s master, William Bligh, but also peeved by the molly coddling needed by the bread fruit specimens the ship was transporting. One of the first things the mutineers did after putting Bligh over the side at the end of a plank was to follow him up with the despised potted plants themselves.

Mutiny on the Bounty, Robert Dodd, 1790.
Mutiny on the Bounty, Robert Dodd, 1790.

French voyages to the South Seas, aimed specifically at broadening scientific understanding of the world followed, amassing thousands of plant and animal specimens for transport to the museums of France (and the garden of Napoleon’s main muse, Josephine) along the way.

The British nation by contrast came to the antipodes for the duration. As settlers they found an alien world where everything appeared to be at sixes and sevens. The trees dropped their leaves in the summer, animals hopped around on their hind legs and marvellous furry creatures sported bills like ducks.

Lachlan Macquarie, 5th governor of New South Wales and considered by some to be “The Father of Australia”, (quite fitting to this story as his family had connections to Moffat McLachlan) gathered a truly remarkable collectors’ chest during his command of the New South Wales colony . Such cabinets of curiosities, although not serious scientific items, followed a tradition of wunderkammer or collector’s cabinets designed to appeal to the cognoscenti and scientifically minded gentlemen of the day. Macquarie’s was constructed for the governor around the year 1818 and was crammed chock a block with Australian seaweeds and shells, preserved butterflies, insects, stuffed birds and was decorated with painted panels of scenes of the early colonial landscape.

Butterflies in the Macquarie Collector's Chest, SL of NSW.
Butterflies in the Macquarie Collector’s Chest, SL of NSW.

The cabinet went back with Macquarie to Scotland in 1821, along with his pet cow, and it stayed there for the best part of two centuries. Today it forms part of the Mitchell Library Collection here in Australia, along with a second chest of apparently identical origin — a sort of collection of collections, within a collection, you might say. No one knows what happened to the cow.

Macquarie Collector's Chest, c1818, SL of NSW.
Macquarie Collector’s Chest, c1818, SL of NSW.

Such artefacts from the mysterious Great Southern Land held great wonder for the stay at homes of the old world. The writer and artist and life-long friend of Edward La Trobe Bateman, Louisa Anne Meredith visited Yallambie in 1856 and wrote about it with purple prose:

…What treasures we carried back with us to Melbourne, after that merry luncheon in the cottage room, with its windows curtained by fuschias and passion flowers! (Over the Straits, p184, Meredith, 1861)

Louisa was first drawn to the idea of emigrating by the presence of Australian natural history specimens in her earlier Birmingham home. These included a case of stuffed birds and wild flowers, the skin of a Tasmanian Tiger (thylacine) and, most unusual of all, a cochlear or whale’s ear drum which sat on the chimney piece of her “painting room”, confounding visitors as to its purpose. These items had been sent to her from Van Dieman’s Land by her cousin, Charles Meredith and the fascination must have been compelling for when he visited England in 1838, she married him. The whale’s ear drum now resides in the Glamorgan War Memorial Community Centre history collection in Swansea, Tasmania, the crucial role it played half a world away in the union of one of that states best known pioneer families, probably now all but largely forgotten.

Charles and Louisa Anne Meredith and baby, c1858-63, Allport Library.
Charles and Louisa Anne Meredith and baby, c1858-63, Allport Library.

Long before the Harry Potter movie franchise made specimens under glass the new chic, my wife and I kept our own natural history collection at Yallambie. Visiting the beach usually meant coming home with a bucket load of shells, stones or seaweed. Or usually a combination of all three.

Late 19th century, cased shell display made by the wife of the head keeper at the Cape Jaffa Lighthouse, SA.
Late 19th century, cased shell display at the Cape Jaffa Lighthouse Museum, SA.

Remembering where the specimens originated or the correct classification sometimes proves a problem but my wife has books devoted to the subjects which she has been perusing since she was three years old. Her great uncle George kept pickled rattle snakes in jars from his time spent in North America and these proved a fascination for my little Wednesday Adams. Great uncle Georgey Porgy has a lot to answer for. My contributions are small beer by comparison. One stone, cut and polished along one edge, came from the floor of a banga banga or water cave on the phosphate island, Ocean Island, picked up during a visit I once made there while chasing a bit of forgotten family history. That difficult to access island was named Ocean by the first Europeans who sighted it from the British transport SS Ocean returning via the Pacific from the first abortive settlement to Port Phillip of 1803. If they had only stopped and asked the locals, they would have found the island already had a name — Banaba. Every object has a story.

Bangabanga caverns on Ocean Island, photographed by the writer's grandfather between the wars.
Bangabanga caverns on Ocean Island, photographed between the wars, (collection of the writer’s grandfather).

By contrast, Tommy Wragge’s devotion to the natural world was limited mainly to the coinage he could make from the four footed variety he kept at the bottom of his Yallambie paddocks. There were a couple of deer heads listed in the inventory made of the contents of the homestead after his death in 1910. They were described as “moth eaten”.

Years ago we attended a country clearing sale and somehow or other found ourselves driving home afterwards with an old mounted deer head parked on the back seat of the car. I can still remember driving down the Hume Hwy towards Melbourne and being passed by a tour bus. I looked across as it went by to see what seemed like a whole bus load of Japanese tourists looking down at us with cameras out from their vantage point. Glancing over my shoulder at the back seat I could see what had no doubt drawn their fascination. Our child in a baby capsule on one side of the back seat, on the other side, a Basil Fawlty moose head, belted up and antlers all askew.

What did we want it for? We really didn’t know once we got “Dougal the Deer”, as he quickly became known, to home sweet home. Eventually he went on the wall of the dining room where a Wragge specimen was said to once reside. By the time our son started going to primary school however, “Dougal” had become notorious. Sometimes all it took was a visit by a mother with her child under the watchful eye of Dougal for us never to see them again.

"Oh dear," said the the deer. "I can't feel my legs."
“Oh dear,” said the the deer. “I can’t feel my legs.”

Poor old Dougal. He was quite possibly a happy deer roaming through the gloaming before finding himself short one noggin one afternoon in the now forgotten past eventually to find himself lodged on a wall at Yallambie in the 21st century. It is this fact that must leave a cautionary note to this tale of collecting mania for the very act of collecting carries with it an inherent danger of destroying some part of the natural world that it seeks to record. How many people gasped in disbelief this year when a well-known, former Australian Test cricketer was shown on the front pages of the newspapers, photographed alongside a dead elephant shot on safari in Africa?

The wife of the greatest painter of North American bird life, John James Audubon, was born Lucy Bakewell to the Derbyshire branch of the family of John and Robert Bakewell of Yallambie. Like other members of that extensive family she was a Quaker and was taught an appreciation of the natural world from an early age. She met and married John James in America after emigrating there at a young age and with her background and education she proved herself to be a great assistance to her husband in his artistic endeavours.

Lucy (Bakewell) and her husband John James Audubon in silhouette, 1825.
Lucy (Bakewell) and her husband John James Audubon in silhouette, 1825.

John James Audobon shot the birds that he painted for his magnum opus, “The Birds of America”, mounting them in realistic poses on boards before sketching them. “The Birds of America” is probably the greatest book of ornithological illustration ever created and that is now ever likely to be created, for many of the birds depicted in its elephant size plates are now extinct.

The Austrian painter Eugene von Guerard developed a reputation as the foremost painter of landscapes in the Australian colonies in the 1850s and 60s. His painting “The Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne” was painted in 1862 and shows a pastoral scene somewhere in the vicinity of the Plenty Valley.

Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne, Eugene von Guérard, 1862.
Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne, Eugene von Guérard, 1862, SLV.

According to Lucy Ellem, founding professor of Art History at Latrobe University and today an Honorary Research Associate, this painting may have been produced after a visit to the Bakewells’ “Yallambee”. Writing about Richard Howitt’s earlier (and previously quoted) description of “Yallambee”, Lucy identifies this painting and compares it to Howitt’s description, stating the elegant notion that:

“…in 1862, and perhaps also on a visit to the Bakewell homestead since he was staying with their brother-in-law, Dr Godfrey Howitt in that same year, one of Australia’s leading colonial artists , Eugene von Guerard, would record the landscape of this vicinity in a work which expresses Howitt’s sense of the dreary, unending woodlands.” (The Cultural Landscape of the Plenty Valley, Plenty Valley Papers, vol 1, Lucy Ellem, 1995)

“The Plenty Ranges” is an oil sketch but possibly von Guerard’s most famous painting was the large and highly detailed “Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges” which was painted in 1857. As Tim Bonyhady explained in “The Colonial Earth”, it sat in a shop window at the top of Collins Street East near the home of Dr Godfrey Howitt for nearly two years, drawing admiring spectators and made the artist and the subject matter famous throughout the Colony.

Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges, Eugene von Guérard, 1857, NGA.
Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges, Eugene von Guérard, 1857, NGA.

Previously the “Ferntree Gully” of the painting had been known locally as Dobson’s Gully but such was the painting’s renown that the area became firmly set in the popular imagination as “Ferntree”. Admiring tourists were drawn to visit the place of von Guerard’s painting, among the first being the artist’s friend, Julie Vieusseux who went there on New Year’s Day, 1858.Tragedy followed when Vieusseux’s 8 year old son went missing in the bush. A fourteen day search failed to find him, his bones being found on the mountain two years later.

One of the keenest searchers for the lost boy was Alfred Howitt who as previously discussed had earlier visited the Bakewell brothers at Yallambie. Howitt wrote excitedly to his sister Mary Howitt (former fiancé of E La Trobe Bateman), giving her his impressions of the fern trees:

“…among their roots runs the coolest, clearest stream you can imagine and on each side an almost impenetrable musk scrub covers the side of the range. It would be almost impossible to give you an idea of the strange effects of light and shade in the gully. The fern trees seem to form a living grotto. Their rough mossy stems are the columns, their arching fronds are the roof…”

From being a wilderness where a child could be lost in the bush with fatal consequences, Ferntree Gully became a Mecca for Melbourne day trippers, enthralled by the natural beauty of the area. The inevitable consequence was destruction of the environment.

The Wood-Splitters' Hut in the Fern Tree Gully, 1865
The Wood-Splitters’ Hut in the Fern Tree Gully, 1865

With every frond removed from the Gully to decorate the Melbourne parlours of visiting tourists and every fern leaf taken to be pressed into Victorian scrap books, the Gully was that much diminished. Visit Ferntree Gully today, the Melbourne suburb on the Burwood Hwy at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges, and from the highway you would be hard pressed to find a world recognizable to von Guerard.

Douglas Adams perhaps best summed up the process of loving an environment to death with his farcical description of the fabulous fictional world of Bethselamin in his improbable, “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”:

“A fabulously beautiful planet, Bethselamin is now so worried about the cumulative erosion by ten billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your bodyweight when you leave: so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt.”


4 thoughts on “Wunderkammer”

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