Motorbikes and mousetraps: the history of ecology at Wytham Woods

from Dr Georgina Montgomery, Associate Member of the History Faculty affiliated to the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, and Byrne Bussey Marconi Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian Libraries in 2021

Charles Elton on his motorbike with mouse-traps, at Bagley Wood, Oxford, 1926 (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)
Charles Elton on his motorbike with mouse-traps, at Bagley Wood, Oxford, 1926 (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)

Charles Elton – looking young and adventurous on his motorbike in the 1920s, in the picture above – is often referred to as the “father of ecology.” Elton spent much of his career conducting long-term ecological research in Wytham Woods, which remains an active field site to this day. Although it would be easy to imagine Elton working alone in the Woods, Wytham has embodied a collaborative approach to science. Groups of students and researchers worked together with Elton to collect data on the huge diversity of fauna and flora that exist in Wytham.

One animal that might seem mundane to us, but is important for understanding the ecology of a place, is the mouse. Details about the mice were recorded on a ‘body card.’ This card was specially decorated
by Elton to celebrate the occasion of the 2000th observation, of a mouse which was live-trapped in 1928.(Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)

'Body card' recording the 2000th mouse live-trapped in Wytham Woods by Elton and colleagues (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)
‘Body card’ recording the 2000th mouse live-trapped in Wytham Woods by Elton and colleagues (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)

By 1952, Elton and two collaborators, R.S. Miller and B. Macpherson, developed a custom-made punch card for observations of plants and animals at Wytham Woods.

Punch card showing details of mice captured
Oxford University Museum of Natural History

In the summer of 2021, I will be leading walks in Wytham Woods in the footsteps of Charles Elton. These events are part of an appreciation of the history of Wytham Woods as a scientific environment.

An event for children aged 10-12 will take place on 3 July, with an event for adults to be scheduled later in the summer.

The photos below capture the diversity of researchers who studied field ecology in Wytham during the 1950s. Students came from across the United Kingdom, and travelled internationally, to study ecology with Elton in Wytham. Below, you see just two of the many women who have conducted research in Wytham Woods from the 1940s onwards. From 1950 the number of women enrolled in Elton’s field ecology course frequently outnumbered the men.

Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1950. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)
Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1950. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)
Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1956. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)
Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1956. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

Wytham is not only a place for science. Wytham Woods has attracted artists and poets, including Elton’s wife, E.J. Scovell. Her poems often focused on nature. The scientists and artists who now work here also appreciate the beauty of the Woods.

Preserving the beauty of Wytham Woods was also an important reason why this area was given to the University of Oxford by the ffennell family in memory of their daughter, Hazel, who died in 1939, only in her early thirties.

Hazel, Sal and Leez at Wytham, from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)
Hazel, Sal and Leez at Wytham, from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)
‘Spring in the farmyard, Wytham,’ a watercolour by Hazel ffennell, reproduced from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)
‘Spring in the farmyard, Wytham,’ a watercolour by Hazel ffennell, reproduced from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)

Futher reading:

    • Dr. Georgina M. Montgomery’s recent publication for The Royal Society’s Notes and Records . This essay on the history of Wytham Woods formed part of a special issue entitled “Biodiversity and the History of Scientific Environments” which Dr. Montgomery also co-edited about the history of scientific environments in the UK, USA, and Korea:
    • More information about the Wytham Estate can be found in Notes on the History of the Wytham Estate, a limited edition reprint of the 1955 booklet by A.J. Grayson and E.W. Jones of the Imperial Forestry Institute at Oxford, complete with a pull-out map of the Wytham Estate with annotations from the 19th and 20th centuries.

    • For the work of Charles Elton, see the Charles Elton Archive on ORA, The Oxford University Research Archive

    • And find the Correspondence and papers of Charles Sutherland Elton, FRS (1900-1991) in the Bodleian Libraries

A family culture of creativity: Dr Lorna Clark, Royal Bank of Canada Foundation Fellow, lecture, 6 June 2017


Charles Burney – composer, music historian, and musician.

Aside from any argument about nature vs. nurture, it’s no accident that 18th Century polymath Charles Burney was the father of two well-known novelists, an accomplished classicist, and a Royal Navy admiral who became an explorer travelling with Captain James Cook. There was a culture of intellectual venture and ambition in the Burney family, deliberately stoked by their zealous father.

Amongst the Bodleian’s collection are 31 letters from the Burney family archives, as well as the Memoranda of the Burney Family. This remarkable document records the family’s history across 250 years, charting their successes in literature, music, art and beyond, and gives a penetrating vision of the Burney lifestyle that supported these endeavours.

Dr Lorna J Clark, Royal Bank of Canada Foundation Fellow at the Bodleian Libraries, is editing The Letters of Dr Charles Burney.  She is the editor of a volume in the series of The Memoirs of the Court of George III (Pickering, 2015), two volumes of The Court Journals of Frances Burney (Oxford, 2014), and a novel, The Romance of Private Life (1839) in the Chawton House Library Series.


Fanny Burney – daughter of Charles, diarist, satirist, and playwright.

On Tuesday 6 June, Dr Clark will present the Royal Bank of Canada Foundation lecture, ‘A Family Culture of Creativity: Memoranda of the Burney Family.’

There are countless stories to be told about the Burneys, and much interest in the kindred essence that lead to such a richly yielding family tree. Dr Clark will bring her insight and deep knowledge of the Burney family to bear in illustrating the story of this remarkable dynasty.

The event is free but places are limited so please complete our booking form to reserve tickets in advance.

Bodleian Fellows Research, Summer 2016

Some of the Bodleian Visiting Fellows awarded grants for research visits in 2016-17 have started arriving at the Weston Library.

Jana Dambrogio (Thomas F. Peterson (1957) Conservator, MIT Libraries), Sassoon Fellow, is examining ‘locked letters’ in Bodleian collections. [See an earlier blogpost here] Her first challenge is to discover the material, by looking through collections of letters from the 16th and 17th centuries. She consulted Mike Webb, curator of early modern manuscripts, and they started looking at volumes of letters in which Dambrogio identified  distinctive styles of folding and sealing, the kind of usage which her research will examine in detail.

Mike Webb and Jana Dambrogio

On August 9, the Bodleian Fellows Seminar heard from Laura Estill (Texas A&M), the Renaissance Society of America-Bodleian Visiting Fellow. Dr Estill has been working on the Edmond Malone collection, and she compared Malone’s collecting of Elizabethan plays to the collection of John Phillip Kemble, which is now held in the Huntington Library, and spoke about the significance of collections like these, made from the second half of the 18th century onwards, in shaping the canon of early modern plays.


Language and politics in early modern France: Rebecca Kingston, Royal Bank of Canada Foundation Fellow

Rebecca Kingston’s research draws on materials in Bodleian Rare Books collections that illuminate emerging patterns of political language and political ideas in early modern Europe. Here are three of the titles she has consulted, and will discuss in her upcoming Royal Bank of Canada Foundation Lecture at the Weston Library, ‘Eloquence vault mieulx que force’: Vernacular Translations of Plutarch and Political Argument in Renaissance France. [26 May]

Alciatus, Emblems (1536)
Alciatus, Emblems (1536). Bodleian Douce A 132

The Roman historian Lucian described a Celtic god, Ogmios, as ‘the Gallic Hercules’. Alciatus’s Emblems portrays ‘l’Hercule gaulois’ in a way that emphasises that the strength of this god is not in youth or bodily vigour, but in eloquence. A chain passes from the tongue of Ogmios to the ears of his followers. In the French translation by Jean LeFevre, the accompanying verse is titled ‘Eloquence vault mieux que force,’ and draws attention to  ‘… ce qui la marqu[er] de si grand gloire / Que mener gens enchainez a sa langue / Entendre veult: qu’il feist tant bien harengue / Que les Francois pour ses ditz de merveilles’

Claude de Seyssel, La grant monarchie de France (1519)
Claude de Seyssel, La grant monarchie de France (1519) Bodleian (OC) 237 f.134

The cleric and diplomat Claude de Seyssel (1468-1540) translated Plutarch’s Lives of Antony and Demetrius into the French vernacular: these were individuals whose seeming virtues degenerated, in the changing context of their own times, into political vices. In acknowledging the dangers of kingship conceived as personal rule, Seyssel’s work of political advice to the French king Louis XII, La grant monarchie de France, differed from the writings of his contemporary Niccolo Machiavelli, in firmly placing the king within a necessary structure of the Church, laws, and administration.

Geoffroy Tory, Champfleury (1529)
Geoffroy Tory, Champ fleury (1529) Bodleian Douce T 281

Geoffroy Tory (born c. 1480) invoked the theme of ‘l’Hercule gaulois’ in his famous work Champ fleury (1529) as part of a broader defense of the beauty and force of the French vernacular. As official printer to King Francis I, and the translator of several classical works into French, including writings by Plutarch, Tory was also deemed to have been influential in the 1539 Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts wherein all legal acts and contracts had to be issued in French.

Rebecca Kingston is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. She works in the history of French political thought (1500-1800) and on the emotions in political theory. She is author of Montesquieu and the parlement of Bordeaux (1996), Public Passion (2011) and has edited a number of volumes in both of her areas of research. As RBC Bodleian Fellow she is working on a monograph looking at the changing conceptions of the ‘public’/ ‘la chose publique’ through vernacular translations of Plutarch and early modern French and English political theory. Her talk will explore the concept of la chose publique through the Plutarch translations and political reflections of early 16th century political thinkers in France.



Visiting Fellowships at the Bodleian Libraries, for 2016-17

The Bodleian Libraries are now accepting applications for Visiting Fellowships to be taken up during academic year 2016-17.

Fellowships support periods of research in the Special Collections of the Bodleian Libraries. Fellows are hosted in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre at the Weston Library, where they join a lively research environment.

Details of the fellowship terms and application process can be found on our Fellowships webpage:

For six of the named fellowships, the deadline for applications is Monday, 14 December 2015:
Humfrey Wanley Fellowships
Sassoon Visiting Fellowships
Bahari Visiting Fellowships in the Persian Arts of the Book
Byrne-Bussey Marconi Fellowships in the History of Science & Communications
David Walker Memorial Fellowships in Early Modern History
Albi Rosenthal Visiting Fellowships in Music

A new fellowship is now announced, with the deadline of Friday, 29 January 2016:
The Carr-Thomas-Ovenden Visiting Fellowship in English Literature

A list of current visiting fellows in academic year 2015-16 can be found here.

For further information, please e-mail Dr Michelle Chew at:

Colouring by numbers: botanical art techniques investigated

From Richard Mulholland

[Author Richard Mulholland will give a lecture on Ferdinand Bauer and his colour code at the Weston Library on 3 June at 1 pm]

With the end of the annual RHS Chelsea Flower show on Saturday, and the masses returning to their own English gardens inspired, it’s worth looking back to the 18th century, to the golden age of botanical exploration and to an artist who was arguably the finest botanical painter in history, Ferdinand Bauer. Now the Bodleian’s Conservation Research department are helping to unravel his meticulous and unusual painting technique.

Ferdinand Bauer, Iris Germanicus, watercolour on paper
Ferdinand Bauer, Iris Germanicus, watercolour on paper (MS. Sherard 245/70) © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford 2015

Outside of the natural sciences, Bauer (1760-1826), is little known. However, along with his equally talented brother Franz, he is certainly known to botanists. He has been called ‘the Leonardo of botanical illustration’, and is known in particular for the beauty and accuracy of his illustrations of flowers. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the paintings he made for the exquisite Flora Graeca, one of the most rare and expensive publications of the 18th century, and certainly one of the greatest botanical works ever produced.

Unprecedented in the quality of its illustrations, its printing and its attention to naturalistic detail, the Flora Graeca described the flowers of Greece and the Levant, and was published in ten lavishly-printed volumes between 1806 and 1840, purchased by an elite list of only 25 subscribers. It was the legacy of the third Professor of Botany at Oxford University, John Sibthorp (1758-1796) who funded much of the endeavour out of his own funds. Sibthorp met Bauer in Vienna in 1786, and immediately engaged him to join his expedition to collect and record specimens, and ultimately to paint the almost 1500 watercolours of plants and animals he sketched on his return to Oxford in 1787.


James Sowerby (after Ferdinand Bauer), Frontispiece [Mons Parnassus] for The Flora Graeca, 1806-40, hand coloured engraving (MS. Sherard 761).
James Sowerby (after Ferdinand Bauer), Frontispiece [Mons Parnassus] for The Flora Graeca, 1806-40, hand coloured engraving (MS. Sherard 761). © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2015
 What is of interest to us however is that Bauer used a particularly unusual technique to record his specimens in the field.

Bauer is exceptional among travelling botanical artists for the unusual techniques he employed for recording colour. He certainly observed and sketched live specimens, but he did not annotate these sketches with colour in the field as other artists did. Rather, subject to the limitations of working in the field – moving from place to place quickly in often difficult territory, and unable to carry large amounts of painting materials with him, he made only very basic outline sketches in pencil on thin paper.

He recorded the vital colour information, lost almost immediately after a specimen had been picked by annotating these with a series of numerical colour codes which likely referred directly to a painted colour chart, now lost. That Bauer’s paintings were created using only this colour reference system during his 6 years in Oxford, painting them sometimes up to five years after seeing the original plants, and that they are highly regarded even today for their botanical accuracy, speaks to his expertise as an artist and his astonishing memory for colour.

Page from sketchbook for Iris Germanicus showing numerical colour codes, graphite pencil on paper, 1786-7 (MS. Sherard 247/107). © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2015
Page from sketchbook for Iris Germanicus showing numerical colour codes, graphite pencil on paper, 1786-7 (MS. Sherard 247/107). © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2015

More pertinently, Ferdinand Bauer (and to a lesser extent his brother Franz) appear to be the only significant natural history artists to have used this kind of colour code in a practical way. Numerical codes of up to 140 different colour tones are found on early drawings by both Bauers from the 1770s. However, where Ferdinand seems to have continued to develop this initial system of some 140 colours into one of at least 273 colours for the Flora Graeca (and from then into a considerably more complex system of 1000 colours for a later expedition to Australia in 1801-5 – though how he could have used this practically is anybody’s guess), Franz Bauer, who was by then official botanical painter to Joseph Banks at the Botanical gardens at Kew, did not did not appear to use the system after he came to London in the late 1780s. Ferdinand of course, spent a significant amount of his time working in the field, and therefore much more in need of a system of shorthand than his brother. However, it’s interesting to note that no other travelling botanical artist used such a system to the extent that Bauer did.

An early colour chart (below) that appears likely to have been used by the brothers was found in 1999 at the Madrid Botanical Gardens, but Ferdinand Bauer’s 273 colour chart from the Sibthorp expedition and the 999 colour chart he may have used for the Matthew Flinders expedition to Australia, if they ever existed, have never been discovered.

Colour chart (c.1770s) discovered in the Archives of the Botanical Gardens in Madrid in 1999, and likely to have been used by the Bauer brothers © Archivo del Real Jardín Botánico, CSIC, Madrid.
Colour chart (c.1770s) discovered in the Archives of the Botanical Gardens in Madrid in 1999, and likely to have been used by the Bauer brothers © Archivo del Real Jardín Botánico, CSIC, Madrid.

This fact, however, presents a unique opportunity for us to carry out technical research into Bauer’s materials. The Conservation Research department at the Bodleian Libraries together with the Plant Sciences Department at the University are working on a three year Research project on Bauer’s techniques, funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant. Collaborating with the V&A, Durham University and the University of Northumbria the project aims to understand what the Flora Graeca colour chart may have looked like, and how Bauer might have used it. A large part of the project involves identifying the pigments used by Bauer in his magnificent Flora Graeca watercolours, cross reference these results with the numerical codes in his field sketches, and ultimately create a historically-accurate reconstruction of the lost colour chart.

Professor Andy Beeby from Durham University setting up a portable Raman spectrometer to analyse red pigments used on one of Bauer’s paintings © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
Professor Andy Beeby from Durham University setting up a portable Raman spectrometer to analyse red pigments used on one of Bauer’s paintings © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

How will we do this? Often it is permitted to remove a minute sample of paint from a work of art in order to identify the material components. However this is rarely possible with works of art on paper, and is most certainly not possible for one of the treasures of the Bodleian’s collection! The work therefore is carried out in situ, bringing portable instruments to the object itself, rather than the other way around. For this we currently use three analytical techniques at Oxford: Raman spectroscopy, X-ray Fluoresce spectroscopy (XRF) and Hyperspectral imaging (Imaging spectroscopy).

Durham and Northumbria Universities have particular expertise in Raman Spectroscopy of cultural heritage objects, and Durham has built a portable instrument that is capable of positively identifying many of the pigments that Bauer used. The V&A Conservation Science section has a long history of collaborating with universities on technical research, and also has a great deal of expertise in Raman spectroscopy and its use in identifying pigments on artists’ watercolours.

In addition to the excitement of recreating Bauer’s lost colour chart, the project showcases the value of technical art history, a relatively new field that encompasses both scientific analysis and historical research into the materials and methods of the artist. It will go some way toward an understanding of Bauer’s extraordinary feel for colour and pigment, how he utilised his colour code, and ultimately how he was able to achieve such an impressive degree of colour fidelity in his work.

As we progress with the project, and as we learn more about Bauer’s materials and techniques, I’ll post again with more results. But should you find yourself in Oxford before September, a copy of both the Flora Graeca, and Bauer’s original illustrations for it are on display in the Marks of Genius exhibition at Bodleian’s Weston Library.

Printing on ‘Gutenberg’s’ One-Pull Press

Stuart Barnard, RBC-Bodleian Visiting Fellow, writes:

Although none of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing presses survive from the 15th century, Alan May has crafted a working press that closely replicates what historians believe Gutenberg’s invention would have looked like. May built the one-pull press for the BBC programme “The Machine That Made Us,” which was hosted by Stephen Fry and aired in 2008.

Last Monday evening,  Alan May and Martin Andrews gave an extraordinary presentation in the Upper Library at Christ Church, Oxford, about the development of the press. They discussed how historians have used various illustrations and historical records to determine how Gutenberg’s press and the moveable type were developed. After showing clips of the BBC program in which the metal screw was carved, May described the process by which he was able to build a working press. Those in attendance were then given the opportunity to cast their own type and then pull the lever of the press to print their own page of Gutenberg’s Bible, a passage from 2 Maccabees in the Latin Vulgate, and take home unique pieces of printing memorabilia.

Thanks are due to Cristina Neagu, the Christ Church Librarian, for hosting the session. See more beautiful pictures of this workshop here:

Stuart Barnard will speak about missionaries and print culture in Canada, on 19 Feb. in the Lecture Theatre, Weston Library. Click for link to free registration.

Gutenberg press workshop, Christ Church, Oxford
Casting type at the workshop, with Alan May


Bodleian Libraries Fellows Seminar, 27 November

Fellows Seminar 27 Nov 2014_2_web
27 November: the first Bodleian Libraries Fellows Seminar heard from three researchers in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre, Weston Library.

Dennis Duncan (British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Bodleian Libraries, Centre for the Study of the Book) has embarked on a three-year project to write the history of the book index from late medieval times to the present. Dr Duncan presented to the seminar an early-modern instance of the index used as a weapon of character assassination in 1698 when Richard Bentley was satirized by critics deploring his painstaking philology. An item from Bodleian collections, T. B. Macaulay’s heavily and intemperately annotated copy of Charles Boyle’s attack on Bentley, highlighted the continued fear of the index as a potential distortion, rather than distillation, of knowledge.

Claire Gallien (Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3, and BSECS-Bodleian Fellow, 2014) is extending her work on English Orientalism* to a close study of the manuscript collections which informed 17th- and 18th-century scholarship. Working with the Bodleian Oriental manuscript collections, she will be examining the contribution these materials made to English understanding of the Middle East and of Arabic literature throughout the cycle of collection, from their acquisition to their reading and annotation by English scholars.

*L’Orient anglais: Connaissances et fictions au xviii e siècle (Voltaire Foundation, 2011)

Mirjam Brusius (Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Photography, Oxford) is building on her research into the origins of photography* with further examination of the role of photography in historical and archaeological study during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Her presentation to the seminar focussed on the early history of photography in Iran, outlining in that context the adoption of the technology (notably by the Shah, Nasser al-Din) and the adaptation of aesthetics to the production of photographic records of the Middle East in the middle of the 19th century, including albums produced by European visitors which have survived in library and museum collections.

*William Henry Fox Talbot – Beyond Photography (Yale, 2013)

Bodleian Fellows Work-in-Progress Seminar

Bodley door pic_web

Work in progress from three resident researchers: on 27 November the Bodleian Libraries Centre for the Study of the Book will host a its first evening seminar in the new Visiting Scholars’ Centre.
Dennis Duncan, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Book, will talk about his project on the history of the book index, and a case of ‘Indexing with malice in the 17th century.’
Claire Gallien, BSECS-Bodleian Fellow, will speak about her research into British Orientalism, for which she is examining materials in collections of Arabic and Persian manuscripts bequeathed to the Bodleian in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Mirjam Brusius, Mellon Post-doctoral Fellow in the history of photography (History of Art), will speak about her current research into the history of photography in Iran.

Learn more about the current fellows and researchers here


Scholar spotlight: Michael Weatherburn

Byrne-Bussey Marconi Fellow, 2013

Michael Weatherburn

My Marconi research at the Bodleian Libraries principally focused on two collections: firstly, within the archives of the Marconi company itself, namely the papers of Metropolitan-Vickers (MV), British Thomson-Houston, and their parent company, Associated Electrical Instruments (AEI). I examined the implementation of time studies and motion studies at MV and AEI from the late 1920s onwards, and particularly the involvement of Anne G. Shaw, a former student of Dr Lillian Gilbreth. The second set of materials I worked with were the papers of Sir Stafford Cripps. Cripps was crucial in the expansion of time studies and motion studies in British industry, both as Minister of Aircraft Production in World War Two, and as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the postwar Attlee government. I used these collections to interrogate the frequently-made historiographical claim that the 1945-51 Labour government failed to intervene to increase industrial efficiency at a crucial crossroads in British history. Following my Marconi research, I am now in a position to argue that the Attlee government did successfully intervene in one ill-examined historical zone, the factory floor, but I counterfactually question whether this was the best policy at which to be successful.

For more on Michael’s research and time at the Bodleian Libraries, watch this video.

For news on Visiting Scholars at the Bodleian, click here.