Now Published! British Butterflies - A History in Books

The Entomologist's Library

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David Dunbar tells the story of Aurelian Books

David Dunbar

The Business

Aurelian Books celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2007 and has now moved onto the internet. The business was started under the name of Butterfly Books in 1982 with an eight page photostated list of just 59 secondhand books more than half of which, rather to my surprise, sold within a few days. In the year 2000 I acquired the “Aurelian Books” name under which the late Robert Mays had traded as an entomological book dealer for many years. Now, after over twenty mail-order catalogues we have moved with the times, somewhat belatedly perhaps, to a website. My wife says every time I sell a book I buy several replacements so now we have quite an impressive specialist stock to offer.

The Stock - Old

Our aim is to stock an unrivalled selection of books, old and new, about British butterflies and moths. Many rare antiquarian books, those over 100 years old, have become much scarcer and difficult to find. Certainly this is true for the books with handcoloured plates but other works by some of the best lepidopteral writers of the 19th century can still be collected at relatively reasonable cost.

The 20th century saw an escalation of book publishing and a broadening of subject matter studied and recorded by writers. As a result there is now a huge range of interesting and attractively produced secondhand and out-of-print titles readily available.

And New

New books are an integral part of the business. I select the best which I consider will be useful, informative or enjoyable, or preferably all three, to readers. Conservation is now a strong theme in current publications with this trend likely to continue. Searching the new book section on our website is made quicker with subdivisions for the main topics. A few recently published books, mostly at the popular end of the market, offer little or no original content nor add to existing literature so are not listed.


My stock also includes a wide selection of overseas secondhand and some antiquarian lepidopteral books. You may also find identification guides or histories of butterfly fauna by country or region and useful for travelling abroad. I tend not to stock new reference works relating overseas Lepidoptera but am pleased to help locating publishers or suppliers.

Collectables cover a variety of items such as signed or association books, paintings and original artwork, old prints, stamps, cigarette and post cards, and other ephemera. As I buy extensively in the trade and privately other natural history material often comes along – in particular I can offer a good selection of titles in the New Naturalists series and Wayside and Woodland.

Congregating on a sand bank of an Amazon tributary

The Website

aurelianbooks.co.uk will be the focal point for business from now on. I hope to expand the website and make it a source of information about our speciality as well as selling books. There will be links to other websites especially those featuring butterflies and moths. Already the links on my Home page go to several superb sites which I recommend you to visit.

I plan to gradually build a bibliography with images for a virtual library. Books are now being copied on CD-ROM’s so these will be stocked – also some amazing videos and DVD’s of butterflies in exotic places.

News e-mails will be sent to all newsletter subscribers. Make sure you sign up – it costs nothing and your details are kept secure.

An agrias on a rain forest track

Catalogues and Viewing

The business will remain personal. As not everyone is on the internet, I shall continue posting mail-order catalogues to those requesting them. Customers are welcome to come and see the book stock but it is essential to make an appointment in advance – just e-mail or give me a call. There is plenty of parking or we are close to public transport.

Aurelian Books will attend fairs and other entomological events.

The Name

A select group of entomological collectors began meeting at the Swan Tavern in London’s Exchange Alley and by 1742 had founded The Society of Aurelians. “Aurelian”, originating from the latin word aureus or aureolus, meaning golden or beautiful, was the name adopted by early members of the Society. This related to the iridescent sheen on the chrysalids of certain butterfly species such as the Peacock or Small Tortoiseshell (inachis io and aglais urticae). A condition of membership was that any individual owning a butterfly, moth or other insect not already in the Society’s possession had to donate a specimen to its collection. Tragically the premises in London were destroyed in the Great Fire, 1748, along with all the society records and collections.

Frequently asked questions – Butterflies and Books?

I am frequently asked, “When did you become interested in butterflies and how did you get into books?” Well, I don’t really remember, but neither was planned.

When I was about six I made myself a butterfly net and used to clamber over the back garden fence into a neglected pasture full of butterflies. Watching and, dare I say, hunting them was totally absorbing. I was fascinated but the interest waned for a long while until 1976. A July day of that memorably long hot summer found me on the Wiltshire Downs engulfed in teeming butterflies - I saw 23 species in the space of half an hour and was hooked again.

Already a keen photographer, like most modern-day butterfly enthusiasts, my SLR camera became the new hunting weapon. The lucky butterflies were no longer netted but shot instead! Soon after I joined what was then The British Butterfly Conservation Society, now Butterfly Conservation, as a life member. I rapidly discovered that butterflies are not just for summer fun. In winter they meant, amongst diverse activities, scrub-bashing to preserve downland habitats in blizzards and sub-zero temperatures.

It also happened that I had been collecting old books and prints since my impoverished student days but also selling a few to subsidise the hobby. I do remember buying Frohawk’s masterwork Natural History of British Butterflies in Thomas Thorpe’s in Guildford. It set me back three guineas which in 1964 was a heap of money. Later I caught the Reverend F O Morris’s Butterflies in Cecil Court off London’s Charing Cross Road. So, needless to say, with the interest revived, I began buying butterfly books, selling occasionally, then regularly, and the rest is, as they say, history.

And the Internet?

“Has the Internet changed things?”

Without doubt it is an efficiently quick and easy way to find books and communicate if used properly. Equally certain is that it has been the final nail in the coffin of many traditional secondhand bookshops across the country. Such exciting places where one could hunt for hours to find a dusty but rare and maybe valuable treasure at a bargain price. Also in competition charity book shops are given their stock for nothing and enjoy much lower outgoings. Nowadays they even have their own book experts who input the more precious donations to sell on the internet.

A stray Brazilian Morpho peleides settles in the lodge restaurant!

No longer can one handle the artefact so easily - take it home, brush off the dust, polish up the leather, collate the pages ... Recognising an old book, assessing its authenticity and condition or placing a value is an acquired skill by the customer and less attainable through distant cyberspace. With crippling business rates on shops, sadly, more and more bookdealers are forced to operate from home or private premises. Now they’re isolated from the casual passer-by and the regular customer calling in for a chat and probably buying a book or two. Nonetheless, internet searching does greatly improve the chances of finding rare or obscure books from specialist dealers such as Aurelian Books.

What about the Butterflies and Moths?

Over the last fifty years they have had a very hard time with frightening declines in numbers and distribution. In the nineteen fifties I remember being driven along country lanes at night with the car headlights catching dozens of moths flickering in the beams – now one sees just one or two here and there. Our memories are now backed by scientific evidence. The last Small Tortoiseshell I saw in my north London garden was eight years ago. So what is happening?

Only in recent years have I been fortunate enough to visit the tropics. The butterflies in South and Central America are truly mind-blowing but the habitat destruction there is unbearably depressing.

Cleared rain forest - smoke pollution blots out the midday sun

In Brazil, as in the Far East, thousands of square kilometres of trees are felled, any usable timber extracted, often illegally, and the rest burnt in vast fires to clear the ground for cash crops or cattle pastures. The tropical rain forests and wildlife are destroyed. For weeks on end smoke pollution blocks out the sun across hundreds of miles. Even then the problem is compounded by pastures being fired regularly to kill the pests which infest the cattle. The balance of nature is disrupted on a huge scale so it is little wonder that the climate is unpredictably changing.

A Pyrannean flower meadow alive with butterflies

Over 300 years ago the renowned English naturalist John Ray wrote: “You enquire, what is the use of butterflies? I reply to adorn the world and delight the eyes of men: to brighten the countryside like so many golden jewels. To contemplate their exquisite beauty and variety is to experience the truest pleasure. To gaze enquiringly at such elegance of colour and form designed by the ingenuity of nature and painted by the artist’s pencil, is to acknowledge and adore the imprint of the art of God.” (translated from Latin by Charles E Raven).

Aurelian Books ~ David Dunbar
31 Llanvanor Road, Child Hill, London NW2 2AR, England
Telephone and Fax: 020 8455 9612 (overseas 0044 20 8455 9612)
Mobile: 0777 176 1050 (overseas 0044 777 176 1050)
Email: enquiries@aurelianbooks.com
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Butterfly Conservation is the charity dedicated to the conservation of butterflies, moths and their habitats. Click here to visit the Butterfly Conservation website.