52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 25: the Commonplace book of Roberta McIntosh
Worms and bugs of beauty!
This week we have chosen to feature a little album from one of our family collections. Compiled by Roberta Mitchell McIntosh (or M’Intosh) in the 1860s, this is a maroon leather-bound album of pencil sketches and watercolour paintings, mostly by Roberta, along with poems and verse by herself and others. It features family portraits, cartoons, local views and natural history drawings.
The McIntosh family were well known in St Andrews in the middle of the 19th century, stalwart members of the Congregational Church on Bell Street and of the local temperance movement. The name remains in daily use in the town today, since their family home at 1-2 Abbotsford Crescent became part of a hall of residence for students, through the generosity of Professor WC M’Intosh at his death in 1931. There were six children in the family, educated at Miss Brown’s Infant School and then Madras College. Their father John (right), a builder by trade, insisted on their being taught drawing from an early age.
William Carmichael McIntosh, the only son, attended classes at the university but then went to Edinburgh to train as a doctor. He worked as a psychiatric doctor in Perthshire whilst researching and publishing in natural history, particularly in marine invertebrates. WC McIntosh occupied the Chair in Natural History at the University of St Andrews from 1882-1917 and was the first director of both the Gatty Marine Laboratory and the Bell Pettigrew Museum. He was succeeded in the chair by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.
One of the M’Intosh sisters, Agnes, remained unmarried and kept house for her bachelor brother until her death in 1923. She was an avid scrapbooker and her albums are full of photographs, newspaper cuttings, letters, autographs, menu cards, drawings, offprints which reflect her personal interests, the family and her brother’s career.
Roberta, the youngest sister (1843-1869) was a talented artist who acted as illustrator for her brother. Her watercolour drawings of nemertean worm specimens were later to be key to his publications on marine invertebrates, Monograph of the British Marine Annelids, 4 vols. (London, 1873–1923, published by the Ray Society) and his lectures. In a letter tipped in to the front of this commonplace book, Agnes recalls that her sister ‘was a wonderful creature and used the brush so delicately’.
This album dates from about 1860-1867 and includes occasional entries which relate to specific events, such as the cartoon of Professor Ramsay Heatley Traquair (1840-1912) discovering a fossil fish at Dura Den. This is signed RHT and may have been done during the British Association expedition visit in 1861 when a 32 inch long specimen of Holoptychius was discovered. Roberta’s subject matter varies but always shows careful observation of the natural world and often a juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary.
Roberta married Albert Gunther, a British Museum naturalist, and left St Andrews in 1868 to live in London. Sadly she died a few days after the birth of her first child, Robert the following year. He went on to become first curator of the Oxford Museum of the History of Science. An extensive collection of family papers was given to the University in the 1970s by WC M’Intosh’s great-nephew and biographer AE Gunther. It has been amplified by material transferred to Special Collections from the Bell Pettigrew Museum where original microscope slides and specimens from McIntosh’s time remain a key element of the collection.