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Society for the History of Natural History

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SHNH congratulates its medal winners Professor David Mabberley & Dr Henry Noltie

SHNH congratulates its medal winners Professor David Mabberley & Dr Henry Noltie

The Society for the History of Natural History is delighted to announce that the recipients of this year’s medals are Professor David Mabberley for his publication Painting by Numbers: The life and art of Ferdinand Bauer (John Thackray Medal) and Dr Henry Noltie who has been awarded the Society’s Founders’ Medal.  The medals were presented by SHNH’s vice-President Bill Noblett at the Society’s AGM on 4 June 2019 at the King’s Manor, University of York.


The Thackray Medal was instituted in 2000 to commemorate the life and work of John Thackray, a past President and Secretary of the Society.  It is awarded for significant achievement in the field of the history and/or bibliography of natural history.

The Adjudicators of the Society’s Thackray Medal awarded the prize to David Mabberley for his book Painting by numbers: The life and art of Ferdinand Bauer (Sydney, New South Publishing, 2017). It is a marvellous work that has answered, with great conviction, a long-standing unanswered question. How did Bauer manage to achieve, in his final finished works, such beautiful colour accuracy, given that some of his field sketches had been made many years previously. The answer is that Bauer annotated his field drawings with a colour-coding system of up to a thousand different shades. David compared unfinished drawings in Vienna with finished works in the Natural History Museum to show, in the most compelling way, how Bauer achieved this.  Moreover, as one of the judges remarked, not only did he solve this conundrum, the work is a “unique source of accumulated information on Bauer’s life, art and field work during expeditions, viewed against the artistic techniques of his time”. This research is presented in a lavishly-produced work with superb colour reproductions, and is clearly written and accessible.


Founders’ Medals are awarded on the nomination of Council to persons eminent in the fields of the history and/or bibliography of natural history. Council has awarded the Founders’ Medal to Henry John Noltie.

Henry worked at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) from 1986 until retiring in 2017, first in the Exhibitions team, then within Science. He continues as a Research Associate. His career spans taxonomic botany and the history of science, focusing on India and surrounding countries. Twenty years ago he embarked a project delving into the archives of botanical art at RBGE, identifying priceless originals works of art which had been included within the Library’s “cuttings collection”, recomposing them into sets of drawings, and thus demonstrated to be of major historical importance. Working with archives and drawings in many other organisations (notably British Library, Natural History Museum London, and RBG Kew), he has resurrected lost interconnections. His expertise in botanical art, herbarium collections and manuscript archives brings these together and interprets their importance.

Henry’s first book on the history of natural history was Indian Botanical Drawings (1999), followed by one on John Hutton Balfour’s Botanical Teaching Diagrams (2000) and another on the Dapuri Drawings (2002). His scholarly work on the Botany of Robert Wight (2005) combined historical research with critical analysis in systematic botany. Henry was awarded the 2005 Stafleu Medal by the International Association of Plant Taxonomists for this monumental publication. His continued interest in Wight lead to the publication of the richly-illustrated three-volume Robert Wight and the Botanical Drawings of Rungiah & Govindoo (2007), which included a highly personal and engaging account of Noltie’s own journeys in search of this great man.

His attention then  turned to Hugh Cleghorn’s achievements and impact in Indian Forestry against the background of his biography and collections, culminating with the recent publication of three major books. He interspersed these with books on the collections of the Walkers of Ceylon, the botanical sketchbook of Charles and John Raven, the botanical drawings of Sir Thomas Raffles, Hooker & Arnott’s commentary on Captain Beechey, the life of Prof. John Hope and others. In his retirement, Henry revised his 1999 book, now Botanical Art from India: from the Collection of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (2017).

Highly regarded amongst his peers in botany, history of science and collection curation for his deep knowledge and expertise in the history of natural history make him a worthy recipient of the SHNH Founders’ Medal.