by S. Peter Dance
Sacheverell Sitwell may have
been the first to point out that seashells enliven
the foreground scenery of several of Audubon's bird plates.
Scattered on the dull rocks
and sands against which Audubon portrays some of his seabirds,
they reminded Sitwell of the folding double frontispiece to
Utamaro's Presents of the Ebb Tide which portrays a group of
ladies walking on a shell-strewn shore. Dating from about 1790,
this Japanese woodcut book includes, besides the gold-and-silver-embellished
frontispiece, a series of plates of shells, hand coloured with
rainbow tints. Known to me only from Sitwell's description,
I should give a day of my life to see and handle it. The first
edition of The Birds of America, published between 1827 and
1838, is another book worth that kind of sacrifice. Indeed,
I did spend a day of my life, at Paisley Public Library in Scotland,
handling and studying a complete copy of Audubon's magnificent,
if ungainly, book. It was then, long after Sitwell had done
so, that I noticed the seashells decorating -- for that is what
they do -- some of Audubon's seashores.
My eye was drawn particularly
to plate 409, showing two terns standing rigidly at the edge
of a cliff looking out to sea. Near their feet lie two seashells
and a sea urchin. I recognized the larger of the two seashells
as a Junonia (Scaphella junonia), known only from localities
around the south-eastern United States and the Gulf of Mexico.
A moderately large, thick-shelled volute ringed about with large,
brown spots, it normally lives off-shore. I assume its presence
at the edge of a cliff in the aquatinted plate was to satisfy
an artistic purpose. Whatever the reason, this illustration
shows a shell considered very rare and desirable in Audubon's
day. When his book was published, collectors considered no volute
more desirable. In 1828, a London shell dealer Charles Dubois,
said that "Perhaps not more than four can be traced in
Europe." A few years previously another London-based shell
dealer, John Mawe, had said in his Shell Collector's Pilot that
he had received the Junonia from the Philippines. So Audubon's
aquatint may represent the earliest correct indication of a
locality for it: the southeastern seaboard of the United States.
But why Junonia? Or Junonia's
Volute? Such a name demands an explanation and I have looked
for one, with little success. Juno is the Roman version of Hera,
the Greek goddess of marriage and childbirth. She was the sister
and the wife of Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek Pantheon) whose many
love affairs made her jealous and spiteful. Usually portrayed
as a lady of stately or austere beauty, she has had her name
bestowed on several members of the plant and animal kingdoms.
Among plants there is a white lily, sometimes called Juno's
Rose (Lilium candidum); and the pink-flowered Vervain, (Verbena
officinalis), which, according to Gerard's Herbal of 1597, was
also called "Juno's Teares." In the animal kingdom
there are two or three insects (including Dione juno Cramer,
a butterfly, and Stigmodera junonia Laporte and Gory, a beetle)
and at least two other molluscs, (Helix juno Pfeiffer and Cardium
junonia Lamarck -- now known as the True Heart Cockle, Corculum
cardissa Linnaeus. As there is no distinctive visual feature
shared by any of these, I conclude that Lamarck (following J.H.
Chemnitz) called it Voluta junonia because he considered the
shell to be a majestic but somewhat feminine object. Also it
was customary then to apply a scientific name to an animal or
plant based on a name purloined from classical mythology. The
rows of large spots, distinguishing it from all other volutes,
seem to have no relevance to the choice of name in this instance.
Presumably Juno, unlike her spouse, was spotless.
I included the Junonia in my
book Rare Shells (1969) because of its former celebrity and
because it was -- and still is -- one of the more attractive
and desirable of the many different existing volutes. So it
is not surprising that I looked out for it during a lengthy
sojourn in Florida. There was no shortage of examples in the
many private collections it was my privilege to see when there
in 1971, and I could have bought a dozen from as many shell
dealers. But owning a Junonia was not the same as finding one.
Most of all I wanted to find one at Sanibel Island. This was
my first visit to that island where the streets are named after
shells, where conchology is a religion, where no one walking
on a beach looks anywhere but down, where everyone wants to
find a Junonia. I was confident that enthusiasm combined with
optimism and a little luck would be enough for me to find one.
There had been some strong on-shore
winds before my arrival and the beaches were littered with shells,
strings and bunches of molluscan eggs, dead horseshoe crabs
and other flotsam. My chances of finding a Junonia, I thought,
must have been increased immeasurably by this circumstance and
I wandered the sandy beaches in the confident expectation of
swooping down upon a Junonia, a rare Golden Olive, or some other
Sanibel treasure. There were many beached shells around Sanibel
in February 1971. The locals thought there were only too many.
I saw them wrinkling their noses while shoveling piles of shells
into deep pits dug in the sand. Each day I walked the sandy
beaches, expecting to find at least one or two rarities. Each
day I waded into the sea up to my knees, hoping to forestall
a discovery by one of the army of collectors scouring the beaches
for stranded treasures. The only reward for my adventurousness
was a dozen sea- urchin spines embedded in my ankle.
On the day before my departure
from the island I considered the options for discovery still
open to me. I had explored almost every available beach, had
even done so at night with a torch. I wondered what treasures
might have been shovelled into the sand pits and considered
buying a spade, but the thought of excavating their unsavoury
contents checked me. Briefly I was tempted to pay the going
price for a pristine example of my heart's desire in one of
the island's shell shops. But paying the going price for a shell,
or anything else, is merely a transaction. Besides, it would
have been to admit defeat. I resisted the temptation and resigned
myself to the likely prospect of leaving Sanibel without a Junonia.
With everything packed for my
departure I took a final stroll along a beach crowded with shell
seekers. Nonchalantly I shuffled along, occasionally kicking
at the shells, driftwood and fishbones yet to be shovelled into
sand pits. Sanibel had lured me with its reputation and I had
made a pilgrimage to it in good faith, but it had ignored my
homage and denied me its bounty. So many wasted hours, so many
aches and pains, for nothing. I kicked another shapeless mound
of flotsam into the sea, a fitting way to say good-bye to the
shell collector's Mecca. The flotsam disintegrated. I watched
the component pieces tumble about in front of me, a string of
Lightning Whelk eggs, a moon snail, a grubby sea urchin, a Lettered
Olive -- I had seen all these before, so many times -- and a
shell with large brown spots on it, with large brown spots!
A Junonia! I pounced upon it, brushed the sand away and gazed
at it disbelievingly. Turning it over on my hand I saw that
a large part of the body whorl was missing and the lip was badly
chipped. Dipping it into a pool, I saw that it was badly faded
too. These imperfections mattered not. I had found my Junonia!
At the day's end I strolled into
a shell shop where I had already struck up an acquaintance with
the proprietor and reverently placed my shell on the counter.
"There you are," I said. "I've done it! I've
got one." The proprietor, who was dealing with a grey-haired
little lady, looked at me and smiled. Then, saying nothing,
she opened a small cupboard behind her and extracted three magnificent
examples of the Junonia. Her customer surveyed the three beauties,
then looked at my poor, broken shell. Her eyes twinkled brightly
as she turned and touched me on the shoulder. In a quiet voice
suggesting New York or Chicago, she said, "I think I know
what you mean. Congratulations." I walked out of the shell
shop, the happiest pilgrim on Sanibel Island.
- Dubois, C. 1828. An Epitome of Lamarck's Arrangement
of Testacea & C. 3rd Edition, London.
- Mawe, J. 1821. The Voyager's Companion, or Shell Collector's
Pilot. 2nd edition. London.
- Sitwell, S. 1949. Audubon's American Birds from Plates by
J.J. Audubon. With an Introduction and Notes on the Plates by
Sacheverell Sitwell. Batsford, London.