Illustrating and classifying

In the video above James Maclaine, a fish curator at the Museum, examines the importance of Reeves’ watercolours to the description and classification of fish.

John Reeves’ position in China enabled him to acquire many specimens unknown to Western scientists in the 1800s. He sent almost 500 watercolours of fish back to Britain including detailed information on 83 new species.

The illustrations of fish that Reeves sent back from China form a unique record.

Group of fishes

Group of fishes including (centre) eagle ray, Myliobates oculeus (now Aetomylaeus milvus). Watercolour, c1812-1831, from the John Reeves collection.

They show the fish in a lifelike way and capture vivid colours that often fade in preserved specimens. The artists drew in pencil and coloured their work with a heavy application of paint, embellishing with gold and silver dust to represent fish scales.

Single specimens are presented on plain sheets, with the artists aiming for accurate rather than creative depictions, using light and shade to create 3-dimensions and magnifying anatomical details.

Reeves’ paintings and specimens were eagerly awaited by naturalists in Britain. Sir John Richardson (1787-1865) used the paintings of fish to name and describe 83 species new to science. He did this according to the classification system outlined by Carl Linnaeus in 1735, grouping species with their relatives according to evolutionary relationships.

Reeves’ specimens had long been known in China, detailed in vast works such as Li Shizhen’s Bencao gangmu (1596), where classification was based on appearance or utility and empirical observations were blended with poems, recipes, medical prescriptions and historical legends.

While the illustrations show the colour and shape of the specimens, they do not include aspects of internal anatomy now used to identify fish species. This means many of the fish described by Richardson have been reclassified by scientists as more evidence was uncovered.