an envelope with the drawing of seaweed on it

This post was written by Roger S. Wotton, Emeritus Professor of Biology at UCL, for History Day 2021.

I always enjoyed walking on my own in the countryside and along the coast of South Devon, where I lived. My love of natural history and, especially, of life in water stems from those walks, although there was always time for playing with friends or for making family outings. We never ventured far from home and our family visits were occasions for picnics rather than to visit interesting sites. We never went to museums or galleries and my shyness meant that I didn’t have the courage to visit them on my own. However, things were to change in my teenage years when I joined what was then the Torquay Natural History Society (TNHS).

Members of the TNHS had free access to Torquay Museum and its library. While the museum exhibits were of interest, it was the library that I enjoyed most. It was dark and dusty and had the characteristic smell of old books and old leather. Browsing through the collection took up many an afternoon and I was intrigued to discover that my interest in natural history followed from the passion of many earlier collectors and writers.

Having achieved A-level passes, it was then off to university. My first practical class at the University of Reading was held in the Cole Museum of Zoology and, while the class did not use the specimens in the collection, the choice of the Museum served to introduce us to this excellent resource and I enjoyed visiting it during my time at Reading. It was during my undergraduate years that I also developed my interest in paintings, and in the history of art, and I spent many Saturdays at the National and Tate Galleries in London. Just like my time in the Torquay Museum, the galleries encouraged me to connect with history and, with the help of reading and talks, I was able to understand more and begin to form my own opinions of what I saw.

After postgraduate studies at Durham and a demonstratorship at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I returned to London as a Lecturer at Goldsmiths’ College and then transferred to UCL, where I was fortunate to be made Professor of Biology. While continuing with visits to galleries, I now became acquainted with the Grant Museum of Zoology, originally located in cramped quarters in the Medawar Building, but later moved to a splendid large building on Gower Street, that allows much better access for members of the public. The museum is used by school classes, and by several Departments at UCL, and I was very pleased that Jack Ashby (the curator at the time) allowed me to use some of the specimens in the course that I taught in Animal Form and Function. This used an approach that Victorian natural historians would have found familiar and I deliberately wanted to make that connection at a time when Biology was becoming more mechanistic.

During my time at UCL, I learned more about Robert Grant and his successor Ray Lankester and, through them, about the great observers of nature from the nineteenth century that I had first discovered in Torquay Museum, one of whom was Philip Henry Gosse.Gosse fascinated me as he spent many years exploring the coasts of Torbay, the very areas that I had collected over as a boy. He was not only a diligent researcher, but was able to write enthusiastically about his findings and he was also an accomplished artist, who was able to convey what he saw in numerous drawings and watercolours. I have been lucky enough to see some of his original work in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter and in the Horniman Museum in London. The latter also provided the opportunity to look at the cyanotypes of marine algae made by Anna Atkins and the illustrations of a number of other natural historians.

So, museums and galleries have been important in providing material that has affected my own approach to natural history and the wonders of the natural world. Some of this appears in my blog posts, so please click on the links to see what I wrote and enjoy some of the excellent illustrations I discovered.


Two wonderful museums – and mention of another:

Brilliant illustrations of organisms:

A moving discovery at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum:

Stunning biological illustrations: the connection between Gosse, Haddon and the Horniman Museum:

A mystery at the Horniman Museum:

Wonderful first-hand observations of shore life:

The awesome cyanotypes of Anna Atkins:

An artist who loved virgin nature:

The zoology of Bruegel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels:

How a great auk “flew” from Durham to Glasgow: