Perry's Arcana, 1810-1811

By Jef Akst Perry’s Arcana, 1810–1811 An architect by training, George Perry, Jr. from England was a self-proclaimed naturalist, publishing two largely graphical collections of the natural world—the Conchology, a large book that depicts shells of various species, and the Arcana, one of the first serial magazines of natural history. Each month, subscribers to the Arcana would receive a “little paper package” of loose-leaf pages—one to f

Jul 1, 2010
Jef Akst

Perry’s Arcana, 1810–1811

An architect by training, George Perry, Jr. from England was a self-proclaimed naturalist, publishing two largely graphical collections of the natural world—the Conchology, a large book that depicts shells of various species, and the Arcana, one of the first serial magazines of natural history. Each month, subscribers to the Arcana would receive a “little paper package” of loose-leaf pages—one to four illustrations of animal (and occasionally plant) species with a few pages of text describing each one, says Paul Callomon, collections manager at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which recently acquired this rare, complete set of the collection.

book owned by ANSP Ewell Sale Stewart Library
It was always Perry’s intention for his subscribers to compile the individual issues into a composite book, Callomon says. The copy depicted here is one of just 13 complete copies known to exist today.
“One of the great charms of the Arcana [was that] it introduced all sorts” of species never before seen in Europe, says Callomon, such as the first published illustration of a koala. But Perry did not travel to faraway places to find these animals; many of his inspirations came from stuffed specimens or the exotic pets of local menageries, possibly explaining some of his erroneous extrapolations.

Both exaggerations in the images and errors in the scientific descriptions can be spotted in the collection. The dolphin fish, for example, which sits comfortably atop the waves, is described as a fish that “bears considerable resemblance in its external form to the Porpoise,” Perry writes. He was often “derided by some of the leading naturalists of his day,” says Callomon. “He was portrayed as a dilettante who made things up, and who knew little about the higher organization of the natural world.”
Perry chose to have the Arcana’s lithographs printed in brown or green ink—as opposed to black, like most illustrations of the day—such that when the image was filled in with color by hand, the outline was barely visible. “He was probably the first person to do this,” Callomon says. Perry drew some of the lithographs himself, but most were created by hired artists.