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Amazonian artwork by pioneers of evolutionary theory now online

Scientific artwork by Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates - two of the most important nineteenth-century biologists and natural history collectors - is available online for the first time.

Pencil drawings and watercolour paintings by Wallace and Bates have been digitised by the Wallace Correspondence Project and released through its newly upgraded digital archive, Wallace Letters Online.

The collection features high-quality scans of around 200 of Wallace’s drawings of fish, as well as paintings of butterflies and other insects from two of Bates’s notebooks, which were produced during their exploration of the Amazon in the mid-1800s.    

The scanned artworks join more than 23,000 images of documents, drawings and paintings now available in the Wallace Letters Online database.

Historically significant artworks

Dr George Beccaloni, Wallace Correspondence Project Director, explained the historical importance of Wallace and Bates’s drawings and paintings.  'In the mid-nineteenth century, when Wallace and his companion Bates were collecting animal specimens in Amazonia, there were no small portable cameras.’

‘So if you wanted an image of something then someone would have to laboriously draw or paint it. Fortunately, both Wallace and Bates were excellent artists, unlike some of their colleagues, such as Charles Darwin.'  

Along with the digitised artworks, the new version of Wallace Letters Online includes records of nearly 500 new items, as well as biographies of many of Wallace’s correspondents, whose letters are also included in the database.

A selection of butterfly illustrations from Bates' notebooks


Evolutionary theory and specimen collection

To support their investigation into how species evolve, Wallace and Bates travelled from England to the Amazon in 1848 to study and collect animal specimens.

Wallace amassed a huge collection of specimens during the voyage. But on the way back to England in 1852, his ship caught fire and sank, taking with it his irreplaceable collections of insects, birds and other animals. However, he managed to rescue a tin box containing some of his notes and sketches, including his drawings of fish, before he and his crew escaped on lifeboats.

While in the Amazon, Bates discovered what became known as Batesian mimicry in butterflies. He found that so-called tasty species – those that are sought after by predators - had evolved to look like toxic species - which predators avoid – to escape being attacked. This idea provided powerful early support for the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Wallace and his contemporary, the naturalist Charles Darwin, discovered evolution by natural selection separately, but they formally announced their theory to the scientific community in a co-authored paper in 1858.

Famous correspondents

As well as the scans of Wallace and Bates’s artwork, the new database also includes details about the identity and lives of 668 of Wallace’s 1,637 correspondents, whose writings are available in the archive.

Dr Beccaloni said: ‘We now have at least some biographical information for 668 of them, including most of the famous people he corresponded with such as the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, novelist Rudyard Kipling and Natural History Museum founder Richard Owen. We hope this feature will allow users to better understand the letters, since knowing exactly who the letter writer or recipient was is obviously rather helpful.’          

The upgraded Wallace Letters Online contains records of 5,860 letters, notebooks and other manuscripts, plus 23,050 digital images and 4,375 transcripts.