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Jonathan Couch

Jonathan CouchThis exhibition is based on a selection of the plates from Jonathon Couch's lush four volume work, A History of the Fishes of the British Islands, published in 1877. Couch was born in 1789 in Polperro in Cornwall and died there in 1870, having spent his life being interested in more or less everything, from potatoes to pilchards, although he was by profession a doctor.

Although he contributed a blizzard of articles to scientific, medical and historical journals, his major work was the book featured in this exhibition, which was the first widely available work featuring colour plates of British fish. When you consider that he lived the vast majority of his life deep in the wilds of rural Cornwall, it was an extraordinary achievement, based as it was around hand coloured engravings which were made from his own paintings of recently caught fish. Couch took the most elaborate precautions to ensure that his paintings were as faithful as possible, working at the hightest possible speed in order to record the freshest possible colours and he kept his specimens constantly wetted with a jet of water as he worked. It is impossible not to admire the results under normal circumstances, but when you realise the circumstances in which they were executed - often at the dock side, it is hard not to be impressed with sheer single-minded dedication of this extraordinary man.

It is unfortunate that Couch is overshadowed to such a very great extent by the Reverend Houghton, whose British Fresh-Water Fishes was published only a couple of years later - we have included a link up there on the left. Although Couch's work dealt with both fresh and salt water fish and was published in four volumes, it suffered from a number of flaws, most of them related to classification of the species depicted. When Couch could not obtain specimens from the local fishermen, he relied on contributions from contacts around the country and it is with these consignments that the majority of the problems occurred, largely because none of Couch's immediate contacts could be sure what the species were, if he did not know himself.

Despite this, A History of the Fishes of the British Islands made a valuable contribution not only to science, but to the art of angling and it was relied on as a reference work for many decades after his death. The value of Couch's contribution lay not so much in his classification and descriptions of the species, but in his paintings, which were so accurate that they were relied for reference by later biologists, even when Couch's written identification was wrong.

To view the gallery, click the link on the sidebar on the left - this will open a new page which will take a few seconds to load. Once this is done, you can have the choice of using the thumbnails at the top to load the larger images, or you can click in the middle of the large image to start a slideshow.