A Natural History of the Lepidopterous Insects of New South Wales by John William Lewin (1822)

insects_aFrist titled Prodromus Entomology and printed in 1805, A Natural History of the Lepidopterous Insects of New South Wales (1822) is Lewin’s second edition on Lepidoptera, the order of insects comprising butterflies and moths. Its descriptive text is accompanied by 18 leaves of magnificently hand-coloured plates, each depicting the distinctive markings of the insects’ scaly wings and the bright hues of their larvae, caterpillars.

John William Lewin was born in London in 1770 to fabric designer and natural history author and illustrator William Lewin. John and his brother, Thomas Lewin, initially worked with their farther in Kent where they assisted him with the production of his 1795 publication, The Birds of Great Britain.[1] John Lewin, presumably influenced by his father, developed a keen interest in natural history and, anxious to avoid illustrating the dry and damaged specimens which were arriving in England from overseas, set about planning his journey to Australia where he could paint them “on the spot”.[2]

In 1800 Lewin arrived in Sydney. Although he was the first free-settler and professional artist to arrive in the New South Wales colony, he landed amid controversy. His wife, Anna Maria, who had travelled to Australia on board the Buffalo eight months earlier, had been accused in court of misconduct with the ship’s second mate. Lewin found himself entangled in a lawsuit in defence of his wife and although she was acquitted of the charge, it was not without repercussion. In September that year Lewin would have to excuse himself to entomologist, Dru Drury, who had sponsored his travel to Australia. Lewin was to repay his debt to Drury, by way of insect specimens, but had been delayed by the whole “unfortunate business”.[3]

Plate 2: Larva of Sphinx ArdeniaIn the early 1800s Lewin and his wife were granted a small farm near Parramatta. Almost immediately Lewin set about exploring the country, determined to enlarge his collection of specimens. In 1801 he ventured, with James Grant, to Bass Strait but was soon forced by stormy weather to return. A few months later he traversed the Hunter River with William Paterson and in November that year set sail for Tahiti on board the Norfolk, which had been commissioned to acquire salt-cured pork. By 1804 he was so busy in the Nattai River region, engraving plates for his books on birds and insects, to even contemplate developing his Parramatta farm in any way.

In 1805 Lewin’s first book, Prodromus Entomology: Natural History of Lepidopterous Insects of New South Wales, was published. Although the final result was a magnificent volume of etchings, illustrating the life cycle of butterflies and moths, its compilation was a true test of Lewin’s abilities. He had departed London with paper, etching plates and a variety of inks but none of these survived the voyage. In Australia, Lewin was faced with constant paper shortages and limited supplies of art equipment. A scarcity of watercolours meant he also had to learn how to make his own inks and consequently he became Australia’s first printmaker. An artistic success, the book appeared again in 1822 as a second edition, simply titled A Natural History of the Lepidopterous Insects of New South Wales.

insects_cLewin had always hoped that the proceeds from the sale of his works would fund his return to England. Although his first book perfectly showcased his talent has an artist, it was not a financial success. Little did he know, his second book, Birds of New Holland with Their Natural History, was to meet with a similar fate. In 1806 Lewin sent 18 completed plates to London, each depicting a selection of birds he had shot. He pre-sold the books to approximately 55 individual subscribers in Australia, a number of whom requested multiple copies and set just six aside for subscribers in London.[4] What happened next, remains a mystery. Somehow all of the books intended for his local subscribers never made it back to Sydney, whilst those pre-purchased by Londoners were delivered without issue. It was a disaster that forced Lewin to temporarily abandon book publishing.

In the 1810s Lewin turned his attention to large scale flora and fauna watercolour painting. The composition of his artwork was impressive and a number of his pieces were thought to have decorated the walls of Government House until the mid-1820s. Lewin began to paint in oil as well, now believing himself more a painter than a scientific illustrator. His first oil painting, measuring a substantial 15 by 18 feet, symbolised the impact of Christianity on the Australian Aborigines. It too, was said to have adorned the walls of Government House in the early 1800s but has since been lost. Fortunately, Lewin was a productive artist and opportunities to illustrate flora and fauna whilst on expeditions and during his personal travels were plentiful. His 1815 journey across the Blue Mountains, in which he illustrated the “straggly and irregular landscape” clearly stuck a chord with the State Library of New South Wales which acquired 15 of the watercolours in 1937.[5]

insects_dUnfortunately for Lewin, selling paintings in a colony of limited free-settlers, with little disposable income, proved to be just as difficult as selling books. In 1811 Lewin had to sell the farm at Parramatta and in 1817 the farm at Airds, which had been granted to him by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. He died just two years later from unknown causes. He had not really succeeded in the colony as a naturalist but had established himself as a talented illustrator and artist. He was well-respected, had an unblemished character and enjoyed the estimation of his colleagues for his paintings of natural history subjects and of Aborigines.[6] A typical, hard-working pioneer, just trying to make a living for his wife and child, Lewin left a legacy of historically significant books and paintings, each showcasing the beauty of what he called the finest country in the world.

The Library’s copy of A Natural History of the Lepidopterous Insects of New South Wales is the second edition of Lewin’s first book. It contains 18 colour plates of newly discovered insects, primarily moths, each engraved “on the spot” and not from dry specimens as was customary at the time. The plates are accompanied by biological classifications and detailed descriptions.

insects_eIn June 2016 this book was restored under the Adopt-a-book program in memory of Adelaide Advertiser editorial secretary, Mary Meehan. To learn more about the book’s original condition and to see some fascinating “before” and “after” photographs, take a look at its condition report.

A Natural History of the Lepidopterous Insects of New South Wales was received by the Library as part of Sir Samuel Way’s generous 1916 bequest. It is available for viewing in Rare Books & Special Collections at SR 595.7 L67



A natural history of the lepidopterous insects of New South Wales / collected, engraved, and faithfully painted after nature by John William Lewin. London: J.H. Bohte, 1822


[1] William Lewin acknowledges his sons work in the preface of The Birds of Great Britain (1795)

[2] “About John Lewin”, Richard Neville, 2012.

[3] “Lewin, John William”, Phyllis Mander-Jones, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967

[4] “About John Lewin”. Richard Neville, 2012

[5] “About John Lewin”. Richard Neville, 2012

[6] “Lewin, John William”, Phyllis Mander-Jones, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967

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