MARTYN, Thomas.

The Universal Conchologist.


The Universal Conchologist.
Exhibiting the figure of every known shell accurately drawn and painted after nature with a new systematic arrangement. Figures of non descript shells, collected in the different voyages to the South Seas since the year 1794.
London, 1789.

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Martyn ‘produced a work which, for beauty, has seldom been surpassed in the history of conchological iconography’ (Peter Dance, Shell Collecting).

One of the most beautiful of all shell books containing exquisite renderings of shells collected on Cook’s three voyages, and other voyages, with specimens identified as having been obtained from New Holland, New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, and the Hawaiian Islands.

The first edition was produced over many years, the slowness of production being caused by the painstaking method of printing the plates to appear as original watercolours. Only about 70 complete copies were actually produced. The second edition was intended to comprise eight volumes eventually but only the first two were ever published.

“Thomas Martyn ( (fl. 1779–1811), natural history illustrator and pamphleteer, was said to be a native of Coventry, Warwickshire. Martyn developed a talent for coloured depictions of insects and shells. He purchased shells brought back from Cook’s third voyage, although, as he wrote to Henry Seymer on 9 December 1780, ‘I have purchased, amounting to 400 guineas, more than 2 thirds of the whole brought home, Nevertheless I do not abound either in the variety of the new or many duplicates of the known ones that are valuable’ (Dance, 100).

Since Martyn’s illustrations were hand-coloured he needed the assistance of professional artists, but, finding that miniaturists were unwilling to interrupt their normal work to paint shells, he decided to recruit his own workforce and train boys to paint in a uniform style. His first boy joined him about 1779; others followed, and eventually he had ten young men at work in his ‘academy’ at 10 Great Marlborough Street, Westminster. In the first three and a half years over 6000 paintings were produced; at the end of that time Martyn saw that the standard had greatly improved, and decided to scrap the earlier plates and copies and begin again. This cost him dear, in time and money, but the splendour of the Conchologist brought him rewards in the form of gold medals from Pope Pius VI, the German Emperor Ferdinand, and the king of Naples, and flattering letters from lesser dignitaries (ODNB).

An excellent example in contemporary red morocco elegantly decorated in gilt.


Second edition. 2 volumes bound in 1, 4to., 2 engraved calligraphic titles, engraved calligraphic dedication leaf, 39 pp., 2 engraved explanatory tables, hand-coloured engraved frontispiece of a turbo archimedes captioned in greek within a gold painted greek key border, 80 fine hand-coloured engraved plates, numbered in top right-hand corner, contemporary straight-grained red morocco gilt, covers with geometric gilt borders, spine in six compartments, gilt lettered direct to second, double raised bands ruled in gilt, all edges gilt, a fine copy.


Forbes, Hawaiian, 176; Nissen ZBI 2728.


Stock ID: 91339