My Cyclostome Gallery, Part Ⅱ : Lampreys along the river (2008.6.3[Tue])


Since the last column, I have looked a bit more into buying natural historical plates and the books that they originally appeared in and, unsurprisingly in this day and age, discovered a number of online stores where you can do so. Each of these sellers is well stocked and appears to be doing a bustling trade. But I have also seen most of the books that they have on offer in the bookshops of Paris, suggesting that the variety of natural history prints out there is, understandably, finite. And for similar reasons, there are countless species for which no prints exist, as they weren't being shown in art at the time that such books were in publication. So drawn animals are fortunate. In the genre I'm interested in, animal prints of any sort are rare, representing no more than a small fraction of the total. I think this is a reflection of how natural history changed with the times, with a growing divide between those who approached biology as a field and those who took it as a pastime.

    You can see this in the folios as well. My ideal book is published after copperplate printing was developed in the 19th century, but before the advent of multicolor printing techniques, with plates engraved by an artist with sufficient knowledge and skill to portray his subject accurately. It should maintain a feel for natural history as a calling, but also maintain enough professionalism to retain scientific authority, which is admittedly a fairly tight filter even for an age when such considerable artistic talent and technique was invested in morphological papers and books. Unsurprisingly, only a few works fulfill this set of criteria.

    In the previous column, I wrote about how I relieved the shops along the banks of the Seine of their lamprey prints one day last fall. I purchased four bookplates that day. I found these all in just a two-hour search, which means that there may well have been quite a number of lamprey prints produced during that Golden Age of natural history in Europe. And that, in fact, is the case. Lampreys were an important species to freshwater fisheries on the Continent; I was even able to buy a lamprey plate at a certain shop in Kyoto (see Figure 1). The print we have hanging in the entranceway to our home is from Sir William Jardine's "The Naturalist's Library" (1833-43). This book was introduced in Hiroshi Aramata's Zukan no hakubutushi ("Natural history of pictorial atlases" Libro Port Publishing, 1984), so many of you may already be familiar with it. As little was known at the time of fish in their aquatic habitats, Jardine's collection frequently showed them on land. Fish are shown lying in the grass or on a stone, showing very little concern for their plight and striking the most unlikely, gravity-defying poses. In this age of scuba diving and aquariums, it may seem a bit absurd, but depicting fish in their natural freshwater or marine surroundings was apparently a major challenge back then. The "Histoire Naturelle de Lacépède comprenant les cétacés, les quadrupèdes ovipares, les serpents et les poissons" is another work constructed in a similar vein, but makes a greater effort toward realism, showing fish exactly as they were landed by the anglers that caught them.

    "Les Poissons" (1876-77; see Figure 2) by H. F. P. Gervais and R. Boulart, is a book of another sort. J. Rothschild was apparently the editor. The illustrations are for the most part finely detailed hand-colored plates, but the lamprey (Lampetra planeri, called Lamproie de planer in France) here is an exception to that general standard of quality. In fact, this may beone of my least well-advised acquisitions. It may be due in part to the fact that it has no scales and is an unprepossessing creature at best, but the lines used to depict the lamprey (in copperplate) in this work are almost completely obscured by the heavy wash of thick watercolor; not at all representative of the artistry typical of the period. The layer of paint has flaked off in places, giving an interesting, vaguely Japanese feel to the plate. It seems the young artist who rendered the coloring was not up to his task. In those days, each individual plate was hand-colored, meaning that no two are exactly alike. But even allowing for that, I think it's fair to say that this one is unique in its garishness. Beneath the adult lamprey, an Ammocoetes, which at the time was not recognized as a distinct taxon, is shown as a specimen of its larva (see bottom image).

    I discovered a number of other lamprey images in Paris, two of which, interestingly, came from the same book. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to identify the original source. A third is shown in Figure 3. From the quality of the printing and the illustration, I'd say that this dates back to the 18th century, rather than the 19th. It shows what appear to be three lampreys, labeled, from the top down, Le Rouge, Le Pricka, and Le Sucet. Presumably these are the common French names for the animals - no Latin appellations are given. The colors are vibrant, the top image (on the left in the original disposition) in particular makes one wonder whether ever there lived such a crimson lamprey. In any case, it certainly is rouge. The name Le sucet is probably related to the French word sucer, meaning "to suck," which is appropriate enough. As for pricka, that remains a mystery to me. It doesn't appear to have been a work intended for specialists, and there are probably quite a few copies around. In fact, I found an uncolored copy of the exact same plate in the same store more than 10 years ago.

    Philippe Janvier, who specializes in agnathan paleontology, finally explained the etymologies of these names when he was at the CDB for the recent cyclostome meeting. He told me that these were all common or vulgar names used in southern France, used for the same lamprey at different stages in its development (just as we occasionally use different names for the same fish at different ages). Le rouge is actually an Ammocoetes larva, the veins of which indeed appear red prior to its metamorphosis, when it takes on a silvery appearance. Le sucer was used for animals in mid-metamorphosis, while pricka, which comes originally from German, was only used for adult lampreys that had completed metamorphosis. From the level of discrimination seen in their naming, it seems Europeans had a taste for lampreys as much as we have for buri (a Japanese fish with multiple different names for different stages of maturity).