Unlike most of his contemporaries who took an interest in geology and fossils, Artis was of humble origins. He was the son of a carpenter, born in the small village of Sweffling in Suffolk, England. At the age of 16 he moved to London to work with his uncle in the wine trade, and then later opened a confectionary shop. One of his confectionary creations was used as the centre-piece at a large dinner party and caught to eye of the Earl Fitzwilliam, a leading Whig politician of the time. This resulted in Fitzwilliam inviting Artis to join his staff at Milton Hall near Castor, then in Northamptonshire. Although having had little formal education, Artis clearly showed great ability and within three years was promoted to House Steward with responsibility for running the affairs of Milton Hall.
Although Artis’s responsibilities were at Milton Hall, he regularly accompanied the Fitzwilliams on their visits to their other major property, Wentworth Woodhouse in south Yorkshire. Associated with these Yorkshire properties were some of England’s most productive coal mines, and between 1816 and 1821 Artis collected plant fossils here. What was exceptional was that Artis collected the fossils himself in underground mines; few other palaeobotanists at this time had either the opportunity or inclination to do such collecting. Moreover, Artis was able to commandeer some of the miners to help with the collecting. The result was a personal collection of between 1000 and 1500 plant fossils, many of exceptional quality.
In 1825, Artis published a book entitled Antediluvian Phytology, which included 24 plates illustrating some of his plant fossils. The book is exceptional on several levels, most notably for the quality of the plates, which were among the best palaeobotanical illustrations to have been published up to that time. Some of the illustrations were based on paintings by Artis himself (among his many skills, he was an accomplished artist and sculptor) but most were by the leading natural history illustrator John Curtis (most of these paintings are now in the collections of the Natural History Museum, London). Each plate was accompanied by a clear description, comparison and analysis of the fossils. Twenty-one of the species that he described were new to science and many of the species names he introduced are still in use today. This is partly because his work pre-dates most of the publications of the other leading palaeobotanists of the time, Adophé Brongniart and Kaspar von Sternberg, and so Artis’s names often take precedence. However, also important are the superb illustrations and clear descriptions of the types, which make his interpretation of the species unambiguous. Artis’s interpretation of the fossils was also remarkable for its time, as he had seen and collected the fossils in the field; most of his contemporaries based their interpretations on specimens purchased from collectors. He also developed new ways of looking at the fossils, most notably developing a version of the transfer technique, usually accredited to John Walton some 100 years later.
There are a number of mysteries surrounding Artis’s work, including who paid for its publication. There is no evidence of any pre-publication subscriptions or that Fitzwilliam paid; Artis himself is unlikely to have had the substantial amount of money necessary to pay for the production of the plates, let alone the printing and binding. The text reveals that Artis was familiar with most of the relevant literature but it is unclear where he would have had access to it. He claimed to have met George Cuvier in Paris, but there is no record of how he came to visit Paris or be introduced to him. The only possible clue is that Artis knew William Buckland (he had sponsored Artis to become a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1824) and it is possible that Buckland provided Artis with an introduction to Cuvier and access to the literature, but then how Artis came to know Buckland is unclear.
Artis intended to write another, more extensive book on plant fossils but this never materialised. In the late 1820s he seems to have lost interest in palaeobotany and in 1829 he sold his collection. There is some evidence that his rather ‘modern’ approach to interpreting fossils completely outside of any scriptural context may have antagonised some of the British geological community of the time, especially his main sponsor William Buckland. Artis was also experiencing some personal problems. In 1827, a scandal probably involving a female member of staff at the Hall caused Fitzwilliam to move Artis to Doncaster, to run the Race Club there. This was initially a great success, as many of the highest in society used the Club during the St Ledger race week. The accommodation and especially Artis’s cooking at the Club became famous, with many luminaries staying there, including the Duke of Wellington. During the late 1830s, however, the Club hit financial problems as horse racing in general went into decline on the accession of Queen Victoria. By 1839 Artis was back in Northamptonshire living in a small cottage in Castor.
During the early 1820s Artis had also became interested in archaeology and he is arguably more famous for this than his palaeobotanical work. He was a pioneer in Britain in making archaeological excavations (an approach that may have developed from his experiences collecting plant fossils in Yorkshire) working most notably on the Roman remains near Milton Hall, such as the settlement known as Durobrivae. He became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1825, was one of the founders of the British Archaeological Society in 1843, and was a close friend of another leading archaeologist of the time, Charles Roach Smith. After his return to Northamptonshire in the 1840s, he resumed his archaeological work, excavating Roman remains in the area, this time supported by another local landowner, the Duke of Bedford. He continued to excavate during the depth of the particularly bad winter of 1846/7, bivouacking out in the woods, and possibly as a result he became ill the following year and eventually died on Christmas Eve 1847.
Artis was clearly a remarkable, self-educated polymath, with demonstrated skills in painting, sculpture, ornithology, cooking, ceramic chemistry and archaeology, as well as palaeontology; he was also clearly an able administrator. Although he published only one work, Artis’s contribution to palaeobotany was exceptional for its time. His interpretation of the fossils was in many ways ahead of its time, and he will be remembered as the author of some of the most abundant and widespread species in the Carboniferous coal deposits of Euramerica.
Artis, E. T. 1825. Antediluvian phytology, illustrated by a collection of the fossil remains of plants peculiar to the coal formations of Great Britain. J. Cumberland, Rodwell & Martin, W. Phillips, Taylor, Hessey and Nichols & Son, London, 13 pp., 24 pls (reprinted in 1838).
Cleal, C. J., Fraser, H. E., Lazarus, M. & Dannell, G. 2009. The forests before the flood: the palaeobotanical contributions of Edmund Tyrell Artis (1789-1847). Earth Sciences History, 28, 245-275.
Dr. Chris Cleal, Cardiff, UK.