Sunday, July 25, 2021

Thomas Jefferys “The Rattle-Snake” and Other Engravings from A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences

A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and SciencesComprehending All the Branches of Useful Knowledge, with Accurate Descriptions as Well of the Various Machines, Instruments, Tools, Figures, and Schemes Necessary for Illustrating Them, as of the Classes, Kinds, Preparations, and Uses of Natural Productions, Whether Animals, Vegetables, Minerals, Fossils, Or Fluids; Together with the Kingdoms, Provinces, Cities, Towns, and Other Remarkable Places Throughout the World. By a Society of Gentlemen. Volume 4. Second Edition. W. Owen, London. 3,506 pp.


Fig. 1. Titlepage of A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume IV, Second edition, 1764.

A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences(Fig. 1) was one of the earliest dictionaries focusing principally on the sciences. This massive undertaking, comprising >3,500 pages in four volumes, was compiled by “A Society of Gentlemen” based on information from “the best authors in all languages.” It was first issued in 1754, with a second edition in 1763–1764. The dictionary was notable for its copper engravings by the famed map maker, publisher, and engraver Thomas Jefferys (1719–1771), who became Geographer to Frederick Prince of Wales in 1746 and later Geographer in Ordinary to King George III. Although best know today for his maps, Jefferys ran a large engraving business and prepared copper engravings for many books and publications. An online biography of Jefferys provides extensive information on his life and work (Laurence Worms: Essays and Lectures. Thomas Jefferys (1719–1771): Beginning the World Afresh,; Accessed 8 July 2021).


Although the dictionary includes accounts of various animals, there are six herpetological engravings, The Boiguacu (boa constrictor, Plate XXIX), two snakes (Coluber, Plate LIII), two lizards (Plate CLXII), Toad (Plate CCLXXIX), two turtles (Testudo, Plate CCLXXIV), and the Rattle-Snake (Plate CCXXVIII, Fig. 2). All illustrations were copied from Volume 3 (Plate 6, between pp. 112–113) of John Hill’s (1716–1775) A General Natural History:Or New and Accurate Description of the Animals, Vegetables and Minerals of the Different Parts of the World; with their Virtues and Uses as far as hitherto certainly known, in Medicine and Mechanics (1752, Thomas Osborne, London). Although the originals were in color (see S. Haines 2000, Slithy Toves, SSAR Contributions to Herpetology, Vol. 16, pp. 54–55), the dictionary copies are in black and white. In addition, the dictionary engraving curved the tail of one of the lizards and straightened the tail of the Boiguacu. The rattlesnake engraving itself is a copy of the rattlesnake in Johann Nieremberg’s (1595–1658)Historia Naturaepublished in 1635 (see L.M. Klauber 1972, Rattlesnakes, Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind, Volume II,p.1,225). The accompanying text for the rattlesnake entry (pp. 2,712–2,713) is as follows:

Fig. 2.Thomas Jeffreys’ engraving “The Rattle-Snake.”


RATTLE-SNAKE, crotalophorus, in zoology, a genus of ſerpents, having ſcuta that cover the whole under-ſurface of the body and tail, and having the extremity of the body terminated by a kind of rattle, formed of a ſeries of urceolated articulations, which are moveable, and make a noiſe. See plate CCXXVIII. fig. 1. 


Of this ſerpent, there are two ſpecies, the greater one with the ſcuta of the abdomen a hundred and ſeventy-two, of the tail twenty-one; and the leſſer rattle ſnake, having the ſcuta of the abdomen a hundred and ſixty-five, of the tail twenty-eight. The larger is a very terrible, and, at its full growth, a very large ſerpent, growing to eight feet in length, with a proportionable thickneſs: the head is large, broad, depreſſed, and of a pale brown: the iris of the eye is red; the back is of a brown colour, with an admixture of a ruddy yellow, and variegated with a great many irregular tranſverſe liſts, of a deep black: the belly is of a palith blue; the rattle is of a firm, and as it were of a horny ſubſtance, and brown colour, compoſed of a number of cells, which are articulated one within another, which articulations being very looſe, the included points ſtrike againſt the inner ſurface of the rings they are admitted into, and make that rattling noiſe, when the ſerpent vibrates, or ſhakes its tail. This ſerpent is frequent in the woods of America: the bite is fatal, but it is eaſy to avoid it, the creature being ſluggiſh, moving ſlowly, never attacking a man unleſs provoked, and giving notice before it bites by ſhaking its rattle. 


The leſſer ſpecies of this ſerpent grows to about ſeven feet in length, and in moſt particulars is like the former one, and its bite is equally miſchievous.


Although not original illustrations, the Jefferys’ engravings are notable for their high quality and sharpness of detail. Although the rattlesnake illustration is presented from a dorsal viewpoint, the rattle was depicted from a lateral view to show its formation based on the description in the text. Note the rattlesnake’s fang. The species in the illustration is uncertain, but may be Crotalus adamanteus based on pattern.



Submitted by: C. Kenneth Dodd, Jr.








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