Incredibly rare, centuries-old book on insects returns to Newfoundland

Entomologia Terrae Novae, a rare manuscript of insect illustrations created in Newfoundland, is returning to the island after nearly two centuries of absence.

‘When you look at it live with your own eyes … it looks real’

This is a page from Philip Henry Gosse's Entomologia Terrae Novae. (Francesca Swan/CBC)

It hasn't been seen in Newfoundland since 1835.

Full of exquisite illustrations by a visiting amateur naturalist, Entomologia Terrae Novae was Phillip Henry Gosse's attempt to chronicle the insect life of Newfoundland. 

"He came from England to Carbonear when he was 17. He came here to be a clerk and while he was here, he created this beautiful book," said Elizabeth Smith, acquisitions and cataloging officer with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

The book is the first known attempt to classify bug life in the province, and was flown into St. John's for public viewing this week from its usual spot in Ottawa. Featuring more than 250 paintings, the piece is on display at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies.

The rare object cannot be touched by the public, and special gloves have to be  worn to handle it; it was a stressful ordeal for Smith to even transport it to Newfoundland on an airplane. 

Gosse wasn't a formally trained illustrator, but his artwork is impressive nonetheless.

"His father was a miniature portrait artist, based on the research I did about him. It was his aunt who was responsible for teaching him how to draw," said Smith.

When you look at it live with your own eyes… it looks real.- Elizabeth Smith

"When you look at it live with your own eyes … it looks real, it's in 3D. The texture, the butterflies look velvety. And it's absolutely exquisite," said Smith.

The dates assigned to the drawings vary throughout the book, revealing that Gosse was simply jotting down pictures of fauna as he came across them during his stay. Carrying the journal with him as he travelled, he would document whichever creature caught his eye.

Elizabeth Smith is an acquisitions and cataloguing officer with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. (Francesa Swan/CBC)

Like a hiker visiting Newfoundland today, Gosse was simply marvelling at the nature he encountered and attempting to memorialize it, just as a tourist would use a cellphone to take pictures during a trip.

Gosse didn't stick around Newfoundland forever, though. When he left, his work did as well.

"I think from what we know the book went on and was kept with family for a while until it was passed along from Philip Henry Gosse to his son Edmund Gosse, and Edmund Gosse passed it along to his son Philip. And from there it it remained in the family for a while until it was donated to the museum in the 1950s," Smith told CBC Radio's On the Go.

Gosse's work didn't end with his trip to the Rock.

"He moves on to Quebec and Alabama … and he moves on to explore other life forms — in fact, some of which he was more famous for. It is said that he invented the word 'aquarium,'" said Smith.

"Interestingly, in this book the very last page is a sketch of dolphins.… It almost teases you into the next chapter of his of his profession, of his life."

You can see that dolphin illustration for yourself Friday at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies in Memorial University.

You aren't allowed to touch it, though.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go