Published letter (WCP4748.5106)

[1]1 [p. 66]

The Secretary2 read the following communication from Mr. A. R. Wallace, Corresponding Member of the Society, dated Batchian [Bacan],3 Moluccas, Nov., 1858, intituled Remarks on enlarged coloured Figures of Insects.

"The practice of publishing highly-coloured figures of insects, more especially of Coleoptera, above the natural size, is so very general that I fear I shall stand almost alone in protesting against it.

"Coloured figures should represent nature in every respect. They should as much as possible take the place of actual specimens, enabling us more readily to determine species than can be done by descriptions, and making us acquainted with the actual appearance of the rare and beautiful forms which are daily being discovered. Insects, it is true, vary very much in size; yet, as a general rule, magnitude is a great assistance, and often an important supplementary character, in determining species. This assistance we altogether lose by enlarging our coloured figures; for not only does it require time to look for the line of size appended to each, and to consider the effect of reducing the insect to that size, but a small and obscure species is often so transformed, by all its delicate detail being brought out and exaggerated, that we may pass it over altogether as something we have never seen, although the identical insect may be waiting for its name in our cabinet. The evil is made still greater by no system being followed. In the same plate we have insects figured of the natural size, and others slightly or very much enlarged; so that in some cases the largest figure represents the smallest of the insects. See White’s Cat. of Longicorns in B.M. tab. 6, figs. 5 and 9.4 An instance of the same anomaly occurs also, I believe, in one of the plates of Longicorns illustrating Mr. Pascoe’s second paper in the Transactions of the Society.5

"There is also another evil in this unsystematic enlargement of insects, — that we cannot readily check the accuracy of the figures, which must be often very doubtful, as the artist must trust solely to his eyes for the various proportions; whereas in figures of the natural size a fine pair of compasses will both give the principal dimensions accurately, and enable any one in a moment to test their accuracy. Now, though size may not be, yet proportion is certainly an excellent specific character; and it cannot be considered a trifling matter that, by enlarging our figures in no determinate scale, we can no longer use this character with confidence.

"In turning over good coloured plates of an entomological Monograph or of a local Fauna, we may get at once a mass of useful information. We can compare the [2] [p. 67] species with those of our own country, or of any other district with which we may be acquainted, or the species of a new genus with those of an allied group in our cabinet, seeing at a glance their several relations of size, form and colour. But this can only be done if the figures are of the natural size. In the other case we get quite an erroneous idea of the new group or of the unknown Fauna, — erroneous not only as to size, but in form and colour also; for a mass of colour, though of the same tint, strikes the eye more forcibly than a small portion; and in like manner any abnormal form becomes far more striking when exhibited of a larger size than usual. Let any one compare two plates of well-known insects, in one of which all the figures are of the exact natural size (representing actual specimens), in the other variously enlarged (representing nothing in nature), and he will be convinced that the former is in a very great degree more useful and instructive than the latter. It is the difference between truth and error.

"Species which are too small to be well coloured of the natural size should be represented by outlines enlarged in some definite given proportion; and such figures should be given on separate plates, so as to be comparable with each other.

"To make our coloured figures larger than nature has formed the objects which they are intended to represent, in order to make them more showy and ornamental than they really are, is quite unworthy of Science. Such figures do not possess any one solid recommendation, while they do possess many positive disadvantages to the scientific inquirer. They are also likely to disgust the incipient entomologist with his study when he finds that his cabinet can never be so showy as the plates on which entomologists profess to represent his specimens.

"In Lepidopterous figures nature is seldom so falsified. Who ever thinks of figuring a new Erycina or Lycaena so as to equal in size a Papilio or a Morpho? The thing would be scouted as absurd, yet it would be in reality not one whit more objectionable than is the present practice as regards Coleoptera.

"I beg, therefore, to propose that the Entomological Society of London should lead the way in this salutary reform, and allow, in its ‘Transactions,’ fully-coloured figures only of the natural size, and outlines enlarged in some definite degree which should be uniform for at least all the figures on the same plate."

Several members present objected to the opinions expressed by Mr. Wallace, and Mr. Smith6 suggested that Mr. W.’s dislike to enlarged coloured figures might arise from the fact that he had never seen any well-executed plates containing such figures.

Editor Charles H. Smith’s Note: A note communicated to the Entomological Society of London meeting of 2 May 1859, and later printed in their Proceedings series (Wallace, A. R. 1858-1861. Remarks on enlarged coloured Figures of Insects. Transactions of the Entomological Society of London. New series. 27:66-67).
Shepherd, Edwin (c. 1820-1892). Confectioner; Assistant Secretary, then Secretary of the Entomological Society of London (now the Royal Entomological Society).
Batchian [Bacan], an island in the northern section of the Moluccas (Maluku) group, Maluku province, Indonesia (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2018. Bacan. Island, Indonesia. Encyclopaedia Britannica. <https://www.britannica.com/place/Bacan> [accessed 30 December 2018]).
The catalogues of Longicorns are: [White, A.]. 1853. Catalogue of coleopterous insects in the collection of the British Museum, Part VII. Longicornia I. London, UK: Taylor and Francis; [White, A.]. 1855. Catalogue of coleopterous insects in the collection of the British Museum, Part VIII. Longicornia II. London, UK: Taylor and Francis.
Pascoe, F. P. 1856-1858. Descriptions of New Genera and Species of Asiatic Longicorn Coleoptera/On New General and Species of Longicorn Coleoptera. Transactions of the Entomological Society of London. New series. 4: 42-50; 89-112; 236-266.
Smith, Frederick (1805-1879). British entomologist specialising in the Hymenoptera.

Please cite as “WCP4748,” in Beccaloni, G. W. (ed.), Ɛpsilon: The Alfred Russel Wallace Collection accessed on 3 March 2024, https://epsilon.ac.uk/view/wallace/letters/WCP4748