An History of Animals, Hill J. 1752

Sir John Hill (1716 - 1775) worked as an apothecary, but became famous for the studies he made in his spare time, particularly his work in botany. He travelled widely, collecting new plant species for the Duke of Richmond's and Lord Petre's collections, and he introduced the Linnaean system of plant categorization to Britain. Besides botany, he wrote papers on geology, medicine, astronomy and zoology, and made many new discoveries, particularly in the field of microscopy. Hill also wrote plays and novels, edited the British Magazine, and contributed to several newspapers. His most famous publication came in the form of the twenty-six volumes of The Vegetable System, which he produced from 1759 to 1775, and which catalogued 26,000 species of plant.

Sir John Hill was a controversial figure in his day; his ideas were often at odds with those of his contemporaries and, as a result, he was denied admittance to the Royal Society. His importance was finally recognized in 1774, a year before his death, when he was awarded the Order of Vasa by the King of Sweden.

An History of Animals, Hill J. 1752

An History of Animals tells of a wide variety of creatures which today are well documented; however, at the end of the eighteenth century many of them were still largely unknown. Of the creatures pictured, the Great Square Fish is today called a Box Fish; the modern name for a Porcupine Fish is a Puffer Fish; and the Sea Eagle is a Manta Ray. The lack of knowledge of these creatures exhibits itself most plainly in the unrealistically illustrated Unicorn Fish, or as it is known today, the Narwhal (Monodon Monoceros).

The narwhal, as the text explains, was discovered by the majority of Europeans only since exploration in Arctic waters, and the growth of the Greenland Whale Fishery.

Until the narwhal was seen, only its strange tusk told of its existence. For centuries it was thought that this was the horn of the mythical Unicorn, hence the name of Unicorn Fish. Traders from Scandinavia and Arabia must have known of the tusks' true origin when they did business with the Arctic natives, but they kept this secret and became rich.

In Europe, a narwhal's tusk could fetch anything from ten to twenty times its weight in gold. In the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I had a 'unicorn horn' valued at £10,000 which at that time would have bought a large estate and a castle to go with it! Other narwhal tusks, masquerading as unicorn horns, were sold to countries as far-afield as Spain,Russia,Turkey and Japan and the emperors of Russia and Austria had their sceptres carved from narwhal tusk. Yet the tusks' high value was due to more than their rarity alone; unicorn horn was believed to detect and neutralise poison, so was a very handy thing to have around if you happened to be an unpopular royal. Unicorn horn was also thought to cure all illnesses.

When the narwhal was discovered, it laid bare centuries of myth - for a long time, the narwhal tusk had been undeniable 'proof of the unicorn's existence. But the narwhal must have amazed its western discoverers just as much as any unicorn would have done.

Lucy Evershed