Preserving a Family Legacy: Meriel Nevill Watt and John Ellis’s Letters

Renée Wolcott is Assistant Head of Conservation and Book Conservator. A high school interest survey listed “book restorer” as the...

In the APS Conservation Department, winter is museum time. We check the items from the APS Library that were exhibited in the previous year, and prepare the books and papers slated for exhibition in the spring. For the last few weeks, I have been treating a manuscript that neatly bridges the theme of the 2023 exhibition (Pursuit & Persistence: 300 Years of Women in Science) and that of the 2024 exhibition (Sketching Splendor: American Natural History, 1750-1850). On the surface, this manuscript—a leather-bound volume containing copies of papers published by British naturalist John Ellis (1710–1776)—merely illustrates the transatlantic spread of scientific knowledge during the late 18th century. Upon further examination, however, the manuscript proves to contain the story of three generations of Ellis’s family: the prominent amateur naturalist, who died at 66; the determined daughter who fought to have his magnum opus published before her own death at 40; and the bereaved granddaughter whose careful transcription of her grandfather’s words and images paid homage to her mother as well. In the early 19th century, Ellis’s granddaughter Meriel Ann Nevill Watt (1788-1834) prepared a 314-page manuscript of his papers, accompanied by 31 engraved plates from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and 6 pen-and-ink drawings of engravings she could not find. The volume continues her late mother’s intellectual and emotional labor, and invites today’s readers to view the history of scientific inquiry through a lens of love, loss, and devotion.

photo of open manuscript book with drawing of sponges on left and writing on right
Meriel Nevill Watt based this pen-and-ink drawing of sponges on an engraving (Plate XI) in Volume 55 of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. In the accompanying letter, which Meriel also copied, her grandfather John Ellis correctly described sponges as animals rather than plants.

John Ellis, a Fellow of the Royal Society and an APS Member, was a prominent amateur naturalist with offices in the British Museum. He was deeply concerned with the debate over whether corals and other sessile sea creatures were animals (as he correctly argued) or plants. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1754, awarded the Copley Medal in 1767, and elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1774. His A Natural History of Many Uncommon and Curious Zoophytes, written with Daniel Solander (1733–1782), a university-trained Swedish naturalist, was published posthumously in 1786. According to Paul Cornelius and John Wells in the Bulletin of the British Museum of Natural History, “Ellis & Solander's (1786) The natural history of many curious and uncommon zoophytes ... set a new standard of taxonomic excellence in studies of the 'zoophytes', or animals whose colonies bear a superficial resemblance to plants. The book underpins much subsequent work on hydroids, sea fans, black corals, soft corals, stony corals, some other colony-forming invertebrates, and coralline algae” (20).  

photo of manuscript book
Prior to treatment, the gold-tooled spine of Meriel Nevill Watt’s leather-bound manuscript was broken into multiple sections, and the boards were detached. The leaves, which were whipstitched together along the spine edge, were also brittle and opened poorly.

The APS volume for exhibition this year, Mss.580.EL5, contains manuscript copies of 29 letters by John Ellis—or by other authors with commentary by John Ellis—on various zoological, botanical, and scientific subjects. All but one were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London between 1753 and 1770. The last, a 1771 letter in which Ellis refutes the claims of Baron von Munchhausen on the transmutation of vegetable and animal matter, was printed by The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1777 after the Royal Society turned it down. The letters copied from the Transactions address subjects including marine corals, polyps, barnacles, starfish, sea pens, amphibious bipeds, sponges, and gorgonia; land or freshwater animals including the Egyptian horned viper, cochineal beetles, and “animalcula” in solutions of putrefying fungi; plants including the Asian “varnish tree,” the North American “loblolly-bay,” Halesia and Gardenia plants, Actinea sociata, and Illicium linnai; and scientific problems including the production of sal ammoniac and the preservation of seeds and acorns during sea voyages. According to a note at the tail of page 246, the previous letter (from Peter Woulfe to Ellis on the distillation of acids) “does not properly belong to this collection but was wrote out by mistake.” Ellis’s correspondents and disputants include Woulfe, Thomas Birch, Peter Collinson, John Albert Schlosser, Philip Carteret Webb, George Earl of Macclesfield, Mr. Miller, Job Baster, Isaac Romilly, Emanuel Mendes da Costa, Peter Wych, Coote Molesworth, Daniel Solander, the Earl of Morton, Hunter, the Earl of Hillsborough, Carl Linnaeus, Dr. Hasselquist, and William Aiton.

photo of pages being treated
The machine-made papers on which Meriel Nevill Watt made these drawings help to date her manuscript, as cylinder-mold paper was not available before 1809. All of the leaves and plates in the volume were washed to reduce discoloration and improve strength and flexibility prior to rebinding.

According to Ancestry.com, Meriel Ann Nevill Watt, whose name appears on the front flyleaf of Mss.580.EL5 in a hand that appears to match the handwriting in the remainder of the volume, was John Ellis’s granddaughter, the third child of his daughter Martha (1755-1795) and Alexander Watt (b. 1760). When Meriel was born, her young mother had recently succeeded in publishing A Natural History of Many Uncommon and Curious Zoophytes, 10 years after her father’s death. Cornelius and Wells describe “Martha Watt's great importance in Ellis & Solander's joint book” (19). After the deaths of the authors, Joseph Banks (1743-1820), then President of the Royal Society, retrieved their manuscript from Solander’s papers at Martha’s behest and sent it to her. She then edited it and wrote the introduction to the volume (23). Apparently Banks and Martha continued to correspond during the volume’s editing and publication, as “several of the intended plates were not published with the work but six of these survive as apparently unique proof-pulls bound in Sir Joseph Banks's copy, held in the British Library” (20).

photo of print of marine animal
Meriel Nevill Watt’s copy of Plate IX from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Vol. LVI bears Joseph Banks’ stamp on the back, suggesting a continued family connection with the president of the Royal Society.

In the APS’s manuscript, Meriel Nevill Watt continued her mother’s efforts to commemorate her grandfather’s work, honoring them both in the process. She was only six or seven when Martha died in 1795, and she appears to have assembled the APS manuscript sometime during her young adulthood. While Meriel copied Ellis’s text onto high-quality handmade papers, the machine-made papers she used for her pen-and-ink drawings—with the even fiber distribution and narrow deckle edges produced by a cylinder mold—were not available until after 1809. To obtain the engravings scattered throughout the volume, Meriel may also have continued her mother’s collaboration with Joseph Banks, who remained President of the Royal Society until his death in 1820. The stamp “Jos : Banks” appears on the back of the 21st plate in the APS’s manuscript volume (Tab IX from Vol. LVI of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society), suggesting a link between the two. In creating Mss.580.EL5, Meriel brought all of her grandfather’s published letters together in one place, distilling his legacy into a single reference book and writing herself into the family scholarly tradition. Her hours of labor—revealed in the loops and blots of her script, her skilled but amateur drawings, and her penciled instructions to the binder—bear witness to the force of her intellectual curiosity, the depth of her losses, and the strength of her devotion. 

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