Tag Archives: James Petiver

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Three

The Charlton Brimstone Hoax, 1702

A regular and welcome visitor to our garden is Gonepteryx rhamni, better known outside of the lepidopterist fraternity as the Brimstone butterfly. The distinctive yellow of the upper wings of the male, the females’ wings are a very pale green, almost white colour, adds a welcome flash of colour as they dart from flower to flower. Some commentators think that the generic name butterfly owes its origin from the colouration of the Brimstone, a nice story if it is true.  

It is a sad indictment of our blasé attitude to our fellow creatures that butterfly collecting was a popular hobby right up to recent times. Many a country house boasted a collection of dead butterflies and moths pinned and mounted in a wooden cabinet to hang on the wall. Both Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill had collected them with some passion during their earlier years. The reduction in the butterfly’s natural environment, principally from the end of the Second World War, and the growing conservation movement has seen a welcome decline in this so-called hobby.

James Petiver was an eminent and highly esteemed entomologist, operating in London at the beginning of the 18th century. In 1702 he was astonished to receive a package from a fellow butterfly enthusiast, William Charlton (1642 – 1702). On opening it, Petiver saw he had been sent a Brimstone, but a very unusual one. As he wrote, “it exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly (R.Rhamni), were it not for those black spots and apparent blue moons on the lower wings. This is the only one I have seen”.      

The butterfly’s rarity and provenance seemed to have been sealed when the great Swedish biologist and taxonomist, Carl Linnaeus, had the opportunity to inspect it in 1763. Having given it the once over, Linnaeus was satisfied that it was indeed rare and a new species, awarding it the Latin tag of Papilio ecclipsis. So enamoured was he with the butterfly that he included it in his book describing 102 new species, Centuria Insectorium, and in his twelfth edition, published in 1767, of his Systema Naturae.

The exhibit was transferred to the British Museum where it remained until 1793 when the Danish entomologist and former pupil of Linnaeus, John Christian Fabricius decided to have a closer look at it. His attention was drawn to the curious markings on the wings and after a period of close inspection, concluded that they had been painted on to what was nothing other than the common or garden Brimstone butterfly. It was a hoax!

The curator of National Curiosities at the British Museum, Dr E.W Gray, was so incensed, when he heard of the deception, that he “indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces”, a new twist on the responsibilities of curatorship. Fortunately, another lepidopterist, William Jones, carefully created two identical specimens of the butterfly that Gray in his fit of pique destroyed and they are displayed as the Charlton Brimstones, one above and the other below a kosher Brimstone.

The question remains why Charlton carried out the hoax. He died shortly afterwards and would not have had the satisfaction of seeing Linnaeus fall for it, hook line and sinker. It may have been an attempt on his part to get the credit for finding a new species, the holy grail for an ardent collector, or may have been a desire to poke fun at a scientific community that was a tad naïve and gullible. Who knows?

I can assure you that the Brimstones in my garden don’t have spots – yet!

If you enjoyed this, why not try The Fickle Finger by Martin Fone