Edinburgh's Forgotten Entomologist: Robert F. Logan (1826-1887)
Before the days of digital cameras and databases, biologists would meticulously record their observations by hand. Many of these detailed notebooks and beautiful illustrations have now found their way into natural history collections, but are often overshadowed by the biological specimens themselves. I recently visited the entomology department at the National Museum of Scotland to discover the life and artwork of a little-known Edinburgh entomologist.
When I walk into the collection I am drawn to a series of original watercolours, which curator Ashleigh Whiffin has laid out neatly on the bench, along with what little information she has found in the archives. Outwith these walls, the entomologist I am researching is untraceable. Robert Francis Logan was a talented Lepidopterist with an intimate knowledge of the species around his home in Duddingston village, which sits beside Holyrood Park. Despite today’s environmental crisis, this area of Edinburgh is still a butterfly haven and during the 1800’s would have been less developed and even more biodiverse. It’s not difficult to imagine the attraction of such extensive greenspace to a young boy with an interest in natural history. Robert’s passion for entomology consequently began well before his teens and by the time he was 18, his publications began appearing in The Zoologist. Living just a stone’s throw from Arthur’s seat, the Northern Brown Argus butterfly was an obvious favourite, as was the Northern Rustic moth – a rare species at the time. His scientific essays have considered a variety of topics including “Moths and Honeydew”, “Setting Lepidoptera Flat” and “Flowers which are particularly attractive to Moths.”
Robert was not only a competent naturalist but an exquisite artist - I am mesmerised by his pencil and watercolour plates, which still retain their vibrancy. The level of detail captured by the artist outshines many other works I have seen. Artists today can conveniently use photographs for reference, but Robert sketched from live specimens which he reared from egg to adult. Many of his pieces therefore depict the entire lifecycle of a species. As a young man, Robert had dreams of compiling these illustrations into a book titled “Illustrations of Scottish Lepidoptera,” to be published in twelve parts. This proposition was presented to colleagues and a substantial list of prominent subscribers collected. Among the subscribers is George Logan Esq. who was Robert’s father – a prominent figure in the church and Scottish gentry. His inclusion makes me wonder whether Robert’s early love for insects was inspired by his father.
Unfortunately, it seems that family circumstances caused Robert to abandon both his home and his book. He relocated to Spylaw in Colinton on the outskirts of Edinburgh and here we mostly lose trace of him. Despite showing great promise, It appears he gave up entomology as a career path altogether and spent the rest of his days as an artist until he died at the age of 60. It’s a great shame that such beautiful works never made it to print – now stored in the NMS entomology collections where they receive little attention from the public.
The little we know about the life and early works of Robert Logan has been gleaned from his published works and references to him in the writings of other Lepidopterists. His 1887 obituary in The Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine gathers some of this information well and comments on the reliability of Robert’s observation skills – along with the regret that little of his work was shared with the world. Curator Ashleigh Whiffin is now eager for the paintings to be more appreciated - hopefully this blog post will serve as a digital record and also encourage others to visit.
The wonderful thing about the entomology collection at the National Museum of Scotland is that it’s available for the public to use. It’s a valuable resource for enthusiasts, artists, researchers, school children – and you! Please make use of museums and the wonderful curators like Ashleigh who are happy to help you and share their knowledge!