By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
I recently cataloged items from Smithsonian Archives RU 7186, United States Exploring Expedition Collection, 1838-1885, and came across a series of wonderful hand-drawn and hand-colored images. Collections I cataloged before this were visually documented with photographs or quick sketches in the midst of field notes. The drawings in RU 7186 are a separate series and have dramatically varying amounts of information. Some are covered in notes and are rough sketches; others are highly detailed and do not even have a signature. Initially, I was unsure how to conclusively judge:
· Were the drawings created during or after the expedition?
· Were they illustrations of specific specimens or were these images a combination of several observed fish specimens?
After studying the images and speaking to Archive staff, I came up with a list of questions and additionally learned what made some of these images so important.
1. Is there a date? Location? Specimen number?
Some images were easy to judge; this is a drawing of a specimen, created in the field. The following looks a lot like the sketches found in field notes. It includes a date, location, specimen number, and signature. The note at the bottom states that the skin of the fish depicted has been preserved.
2. How “finished” is the image?
If a sketch is not highly detailed, it was probably made in the field in preparation for a more detailed illustration after the return home.
Below is a sketch by John Richard originally for publication.
3. Can you judge the time period based on the artist?
The first drawings above are signed by Joseph Drayton, who worked during the expedition. The drawing below might be similar to some that were created during the Expedition, but was created by John Richard who was hired after it returned.
4. What can you learn from the notes?
The image below confused me at first because of how detailed it is. However, upon reading the notes, I realized this was created from a recently dead specimen. I learned that colored drawings were an important tool during an expedition, because it might be the only way a researcher would know what a specimen looked like alive. Shortly after preservation, specimens lose their colors.
Some drawings will include notes about colors comparing them to something most people would know. Another drawing includes the note “colour exactly like the glorious bloom appearance of the fruit of a plum” [Joseph Drayton, illustrator for the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842].
Note below “Caught with a hook [in] Columbia River at Vancouver. The neck streak appears bright only while living. The dark streaks are not bright or plain seeming life.”
5. How much of the image is complete?
There are several of these images in the collection. A specimen may have the same coloring and pattern throughout the entire body. To save time on a collecting trip, the entire specimen depicted is outlined, but only a portion is detailed or colored; this allows the artist to record just enough information about the specimen’s appearance to create a detailed illustration later.
Until working with these images and talking to staff, I had not realized how much information about a specimen was lost simply through death and preservation. Colors dim and textures change. We catalog the field books to create a tie to information about a specimen’s environment, behavior, and appearance at the time of collecting. Just like our textual field books, these images provide important details about specimens, augmenting information about some of the oldest in natural history collections. Try downloading the Download USEE_7186 of the images above. What details can you find?