Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Recumbent Feline by Anna Botsford Comstock, 1893

Anna Botsford Comstock (1854-1930) teamed up with Liberty Hyde Bailey to promote nature education in the primary schools of turn-of-the-century America. At a time when pedagogy consisted of the three R's and rote memorization, Comstock emphasized the importance of careful observation of one's environment and an appreciation for the ecological relationships between living things. Her 1911 Handbook of Nature Study has gone through numerous editions and reprintings, and is still a favorite among home-schooling families.

Professor Comstock was the first woman professor at Cornell University, and also partnered with her husband, entomologist John Henry Comstock, in forming the Comstock Press, and in illustrating his books and publications. She was an early conservationist, and her nature study principles had important influence on the education of Rachel Carson.

Anna Comstock had shown artistic talent in her youth, and developed this gift in the late 1880s by studying under John P. Davis, master wood-engraver at Cooper Union. Her prize winning artwork was typically of insects, and was used for illustrative purposes in texts and monographs. She was much sought after by Cornell faculty authors for her skillful renditions of nature subjects. She was justifiably proud to be only the third woman elected to the Society of American Wood Engravers. She was further honored in 1923 by being named one of America's 12 greatest living women in a survey by the League of Women Voters.

here is a recently discovered Anna Botsford Comstock engraving of a cat. The subject is unusual for her, but the detail is as astonishing as that seen in the moths, flowers, and insects for which she is so well known. The print is inscribed by Mrs. Comstock to a Mr. Butler in 1893. This is Mr. T.P. Butler of Cold Spring, New York, son of James Butler of Ellicottville. An original card on the rear of the frame further details the provenance as having passed to Flora I. Burger, the step-sister of T.P. Butler, both of whom were surely childhood friends of Anna, who hailed from nearby Otto, New York. This same card reveals the name of the cat - Al.

A bit of detective work has disclosed that Al was engraved for the occasion of the festschrift in honor of Professor Burt Green Wilder's 25th anniversary as an original faculty member at Cornell (1868-1893). In honor of this milestone, his most accomplished students prepared a series of original contributions for inclusion in a special 1893 publication of the Comstock Publishing Company -
The Wilder Quarter-Century Book. Dr. Wilder (1841-1925) was a medical doctor, neurologist, comparative anatomist, zoologist, physiologist and a most popular teacher. The house cat, Felis domestica, was one of his favored species for study, and it is surely for this reason that Mrs. Comstock depicted Al with this caption on the plate between pages 36 and 37 of this book.

Her art instructor, John P. Davis, engraved the pencil autographed
frontispiece of Professor Wilder, the actual print being tipped into copies of this book.

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