Dr Jeyaraney Kathirithamby on Maria Sibylla Merian

Jeyaraney Kathirithamby, co-authored a book with Sarah Pomeroy with the title 'Maria Sibylla Merian, Artist, Scientist, Adventurer', which was published by Getty Publications earlier this year. At the exhibition in the Weston Library, 'Sappho to Suffrage, Women who Dared', that opened on March 6, Maria Sibylla Merian’s 1719 'Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium' is one of the works on display.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was an extremely enterprising and independent woman, and an extraordinary artist and keen, observant natural historian. Her unusual talent as an artist was recognised from a very early age and was fostered and encouraged despite her being a woman. She thus learned drawing, still-life and water colour painting and copper plate engraving in her family workshop. As a young girl she reared silk worms and watched their development. Fascinated by this development she went out to collect more caterpillars and reared them, taking careful notes of their life cycle. From the time she was a young girl she studied insects from her garden, observed their food plants, made notes, and combined this with her artistic skills. She was one of the one of the first to illustrate and make careful observations of the metamorphosis of insects and amphibians, at a time when little was known about the process. Her delicate illustrations were brilliantly coloured, and her notes remarkable for their scientific detail, considering that she worked with only paint-brush and magnifying glass. Her elaborate drawings and observations made a lasting contribution to natural sciences. She is now regarded as both a highly gifted artist and an exceptional empirical natural historian.

Her work straddles the histories of science and art, and is of interest tobotanists, zoologists and historians. Her frustration that the exotic insects she saw in Amsterdam were dead and colourless and thus provided no data on their life history, encouraged her to plan and execute a journey to Surinam. In 1699, along with one of her daughters, she sailed to Surinam as a private individual, to collect, record and draw unusual plants and live insects and other animals and toresearch their reproduction and development. Women in science were certainly rare at that time and Maria Sibylla was one of the first independent, female scientific explorers.

Her bold decision to set sail for Surinam in South America culminated with the publication in 1705 of 'Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium'. There are three luxury watercolours on vellum of this book: in the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg; the Royal Collection, Windsor; and the British Museum, London. There are also numerous hand-painted and unpainted engravings of this book in many museums in Europe and North America.