Wednesday, 12 September 2012

James Bolton of Halifax (1735-1799)

The Leeds Library recently purchased the 1820 (third) edition of Richard Relham’s Flora Cantabrigiensis which was first published in 1785 . This is a list of plants and references to them in other published works. It includes seven plates prepared by the naturalist and illustrator, James Sowerby (1757-1822). These plates are in fact based upon original drawings by James Bolton and, with this book’s acquisition, the library completes its collection of Bolton’s known published output.

Lichen subimbricatus
James Bolton (1735-1799), the self-educated son of a Halifax weaver, was like Sowerby a highly regarded naturalist and artist. His reputation was established by three other books of which he was author, illustrator and publisher. All three were printed in West Yorkshire - Bolton lived near Halifax all his life - and all three have long been found in the library’s collection.

The first of the three was Bolton’s book on ferns published in two volumes:

· Filices britannicae: an history of the British proper ferns, with plain and accurate descriptions, and new figures of all the species and varieties, taken from an immediate and careful inspection of the plants in their natural state, and engraved on thirty-one copper-plates; with the particular places noted where each species was lately gathered, and are at this time growing in the North of England, or the mountains of Wales, Leeds: Thomas Wright for John Binns, 1785
· Filices Britannicae; an history of British ferns, part the second, with plain and accurate descriptions, and new figures of all the species, taken from an immediate and careful inspection of the plants in their natural state drawn of their natural size and accurately engraved, including an appendix to the former part of this work, by which the whole is completed, Huddersfield: printed by J Brook for the author, 1790

Rhetian polypody
(Filices britannicae, v. 2, plate XLV)
This is just one of the 46 plates contained in the two volumes. Bolton not only drew the ferns but also etched the plates. He taught himself the art of etching in order to avoid the cost of employing an engraver. [v. 1, p. xv-xvi] The two indiscreetly placed Leeds Library stamps were intended as a deterrent to any contemporary library members considering the plate’s removal.

The second work was on fungi:
· An history of funguses, growing about Halifax: with forty-four copper-plates; on which are engraved fifty-one species of agarics, v. 1, Halifax: James Bolton, 1788;
· [ditto] with forty-eight copper plates; on which are engraved fifty-four species of funguses, v. 2, Huddersfield: J. Brook for the author, 1788
· [ditto]  with forty-six copper-plates; on which are engraved sixty-four species of funguses, v. 3, Huddersfield: J. Brook for the author, 1789

It was the first British work of its kind dedicated to the subject: the previous deficiency of information on fungi is stated by Bolton in his dedication in volume one to the Earl of Gainsborough: “… a greater number of its species have been actually gathered, in a compass of ground not exceeding eight or ten miles around Halifax, than have yet been ascertained in our best and most correct Catalogues of the British plants.” [v. 1, p. iv] Bolton lists and welcomes foreign publication on fungi and their mention by authors in this country such as William Curtis. [v. 3, p. xxx-xxxii] “… this extensive branch of natural history, is no longer a chaos, or a shame to the science of botany.” [v.3, p. xxxii]
The three volumes contain 138 beautiful hand-coloured copper plate illustrations of specimens described and drawn by James Bolton as the result of more than twenty years of observation. The extremely perishable nature of fungi meant that the description and illustration had often to be of different specimens. Here is one example from the first volume: it is again stamped.

Mourning agaric
(An history of fungesses, v. 1, plate XX)
The third work was on songbirds:
· Harmonia ruralis; or, an essay towards a natural history of British songbirds, volume the first, illustrated with figures the size of life, of the birds, male and female, in their most natural attitudes; their nests and eggs, food, favourite plants, shrubs, trees, &c., 2 v., Stannary, near Halifax: the author, 1794 and 1796
Eighty copper-plates “faithfully drawn, engraved and coloured after nature, by the author” [v. 1, t.-p.] illustrate the work. It is likely that Bolton himself hand-coloured all the plates in the three works detailed above. This is an example:
Motacilla boarula; The gray wagtail
(Harmonia ruralis, v. 2, plate 49

The two volumes of Harmonia ruralis are still found in their original bindings consisting of green quarter-calfskin, veined marble side papers and blue handmade endpapers. The newly added Flora Cantabrigiensis is in a conemporary red half-calfskin with antique spot sides and endpapers.

The library also possesses one other work with a James Bolton connection. John Watson’s History and antiquities of the parish of Halifax (1775) includes “A catalogue of plants growing in the parish of Halifax” which is thought to have been compiled by either James Bolton or his brother Thomas.
 Geoffrey Forster
Librarian, The Leeds Library
November 2012
Further reading:
Edmondson, John, James Bolton of Halifax, Liverpool: National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 1995
Seaward, Mark, ‘James Bolton 1735-1799’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, v. 6, p. 486, ed. By H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

Wikipedia - James Bolton

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