“Aurora Borealis,” hand-colored wood engraving by Josiah Wood Whymper, [Natural Phenomena], plate 2, 1846 (Linda Hall Library)

Josiah Wood Whymper

APRIL 24, 2024

Josiah Wood Whymper, a British wood engraver, was born Apr. 24, 1813.

Scientist of the Day - Josiah Wood Whymper

Josiah Wood Whymper, a British wood engraver, was born Apr. 24, 1813. Wood engraving became popular as a medium for natural history illustration after Thomas Bewick began publishing his well-received books on birds and mammals, containing his own wood engravings, in the late 1790s. Whymper continued the tradition of fine wood engraving through mid-century, and indeed well beyond, as he lived to be almost 90. We wrote a post on Whymper back in 2015, and showed some of the work that he did for Joseph Wolf, Henry Walter Bates, and David Livingstone.

Today we feature a work in which Whymper almost qualifies as the author, since there is no author listed for the publication, nor even a title. We call the book [Natural Phenomena], since that is the label hand-written and pasted on the cover of our copy of this small portfolio of 30 prints. The bottom of each page tells us that the prints were published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1846. It is probable that other copies have a title page bound in, but ours does not.

This was a popular kind of book around 1850; James Reynolds in particular published many similar works, containing large colored illustrations of scenes or heavenly objects or machines that would appeal to the general public. But Reynolds does not seem to have had anything to do with this book. We don't know who wrote the text – probably one of the many editors at work at the Society, a fairly prolific if informal publishing house. It would appear that the editors gathered their text from already published illustrated works, and then handed the illustrations to Whymper and said: "Adapt and improve!" I say this because we can recognize the source of many of the images. The “Air Volcanoes” (third image) and the "Petrifying Springs" (sixth image) come from works by Alexander von Humboldt; the “Haloes" and “Icebergs” prints (fifth and eighth images) from books on the search for the Northwest Passage of the 1820s and 1830s, and the spectacular "Glacier Table" (seventh image) from a book by James Edwards Forbes, Travels Through the Alps, which only appeared in 1843, three years before [Natural Phenomena] was published. You can see the original print in our post on Forbes.

We have tried to vary the format of the images we included here, showing some pages in their entirety; some with just the wood engravings (which occupy the top half of the page in every case), and several details, so that you can see how a wood engraving appears close-up (fifth image), and that every print is signed by Whymper (ninth image), who, during this period of his life spelled his name “Whimper.” Later on, he would add “J.W.” to the front, because he had three sons who went into the business of wood engraving and made their father proud. We have published a post on son Edward, who was also a noted alpinist.

William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.