Sarah Bowdich (Lee) (British, 1791-1856) A Pair of Stickleback Fish
Sarah Bowdich (Lee) (British, 1791-1856)
A Pair of Stickleback Fish
Watercolor and gouache over pencil, heightened with gold
Captioned beneath the image: “P. 20 Stickleback 2 species nat.l. size”
Signed lower right “S. Bowdich del”
Paper size: 11 ½ x 13 ¾ in.
A beautiful painting from one of the rarest book on fishes, limited to about 50 copies, 47 subscribers are recorded, and one of only a handful of natural history works to be illustrated by original watercolors. Originally issued in 11 parts, in 22 installments from 1828 to 1836.
When Sarah Bowdich’s husband, the naturalist Thomas Bowdich sailed to Africa in the service of the Royal African Company in 1815, Sarah Bowdich followed shortly thereafter with the couple’s new-born daughter, Florence; “along the way she caught a shark and helped to put down a mutiny. On her arrival in September 1816 she found that her husband had temporarily gone back to England. While awaiting his return she made observations of the local culture and natural history, but she and her baby caught fever, from which Florence died. After her husband’s return and successful inland expedition to the Asante, the Bowdichs sailed for England in February 1818. En route they stopped at Gabon, where they studied local flora and fauna. Sarah Bowdich’s eighteen months in Africa established her as the first European woman ever to collect plants systematically in tropical west Africa.
“In early 1819 the Bowdichs moved to Paris to study natural science in preparation for a second African expedition. Well received by the savants of the Institut de France, they became protégés of the eminent naturalist Georges Cuvier, who treated them like members of his family, allowing them the run of his collections and library. Sarah Bowdich, a regular at Cuvier’s salons, was described as ‘a sylph’ and having a ‘veritably angelic character’.
To support themselves the Bowdichs published several English translations of French texts between 1820 and 1822. Sarah Bowdich illustrated the books and prepared one volume, (1820), entirely on her own. By virtue of her zoological and botanical knowledge she was elected on 15 March 1820 an honorary member of the Wetterauische Gesellschaft für die Gesamte Naturkunde zu Hanau am Main, a membership she later publicized on the title-pages of her books. While in Paris the Bowdichs had three children, of whom two survived: Edward Hope Smith and Tedlie Hutchison. In midsummer 1822 the family left for Africa, stopping briefly at Lisbon and then spending fifteen months in Madeira, where they studied the island’s natural history and where a daughter, Eugenia Keir, was born. Soon after arriving at Bathurst on the Gambia in November 1823 Thomas Bowdich caught fever; he died on 10 January 1824.
“Penniless, stranded in Africa, and with three children to support, Sarah Bowdich set out to make a career of her art in natural history. Arriving back in London in mid-1824 she found that friends had taken up a collection for her support. By the next year she had prepared and published her husband’s last manuscript, Excursions in Madeira and Porto Santo, adding three appendices of her own based on her experiences at Bathurst. Most significantly, however, her original descriptions of new species and genera of fish, birds, and plants, evaluated by Cuvier, established her as the first woman known to have discovered whole new genera of plants. Between 1824 and 1830 she often visited the Jardin des Plantes in Paris to consult with Cuvier. She also carried out errands for him and other leading scientists, among them the botanist Robert Brown and the Quaker physician Thomas Hodgkin, who had become her close friend in 1824.
“The publisher Rudolph Ackermann persuaded Sarah Bowdich to write a story about Africa for his Forget-me-Not for 1826, an annual gift book to which she contributed until 1844. At about the same time, Lord de Tabley and William Pickering induced her to take up the project for which she is perhaps best remembered, The Fresh Water Fishes of Great Britain. The work, printed for fifty subscribers, appeared between 1828 and 1837. Each copy consisted of text and forty-eight individually hand-painted plates, appearing in twelve fascicules of four plates each. The book reflected Sarah Bowdich’s exemplary command of both science and art; drawn from living specimens, the fidelity and lifelike quality of its illustrations were unique for their time. Now highly valued as a rare book, some of its observations were still of interest to scientists in the 1950s. While engaged in its production Sarah Bowdich contributed twelve articles to the Magazine of Natural History, wrote stories for the annual gift books, and reared her three children. Until late 1829 she continued to establish her career as Mrs Bowdich, only then revealing the secret that she had married Robert Lee, an assize clerk, on 29 July 1826” (T. Nissen ZBI 157; Westwood and Satchell 39 (Donald deB. Beaver for DNB).