Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Jeanne and the Argonauts



I first learned about Jeanne Villepreux-Power from Helen Scales' delightful molluscan treasury, Spirals in Time. Jeanne studied the natural history of Sicily in the 1820's and 30's; she is most noted for inventing the first aquariums, using them to observe argonauts, and subsequently solving the long-standing mystery of how these strange little octopuses make their shells.

A little while later I learned about Anna Thynne--I think from either Aeon or The Marine Station History Project. She studied corals, not the huge tropical reef-forming kind but the understated British kind, and is also sometimes credited with inventing aquariums and certainly for popularizing them. I made a note in my idea file:

Write about Jeanne and Anna. Did they have a correspondence? Can I invent a fictional one?

There they languished, until last week a family friend sent me an e-mail, which led to this Twitter thread which motivated me to finally render the sketch seen above.

Of course most of the drawing is HISTORICALLY INACCURATE, to say the least. According to the rules of Victorian nomenclature, Anna might have been styled Mrs. Thynne or Lady John Thynne but not Lady Anna Thynne--and that's the least of my worries.

I still have no idea if Jeanne and Anna ever met, and if they did, they wouldn't have put corals and argonauts in the same tank, and they CERTAINLY wouldn't have put that tank on such a flimsy table. Jeanne's fishing net is a modern-style dip net, which may or may not have had any analogues in early 19th-century Sicily. Anna researched and wrote her paper "On the Increase of Madrepores" well after Jeanne left Sicily (alas!) so she wouldn't have been working on it while Jeanne was collecting.

But it's a start. Let's call it a place-holder. Someday I hope I can really dive into the lives of these two fascinating scientists and make a lot more silly, interesting, mildly educational drawings about them. There's so much that begs for illustration, like this passage from Anna's paper:

"With a needle and thread I fixed the Madrepores [corals] on a large sponge, that there might be no damage from collision, and then placed them in a glass jar filled to the brim with water, and tied down with a bladder. This method was perfectly successful. During the journey, I had the great pleasure of seeing them expand their tentacula most happily . . . "

Argonaut with expanded tentacula, presumably not too happy though. Encyclopedia illustration dates from a few decades after our heroines conducted their studies.

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