The Comte de Buffon (George-Louis Leclerc, 1707–88) does not look very much like a naturalist in his portrait by Drouais – all that gold embroidery and white lace would have got in the way of pond-dipping or birds-nesting. But he is one of relatively few modern (as opposed to classical) authors whose name is synonymous with that of their oeuvre – in this case the 44 volumes of his Histoire Naturelle générale et particulière (a final volume based on his notes was published a year after his death; the pursuit of scientific knowledge then had to take a bit of a back seat in France for at least a few years).
Born into relative prosperity near Dijon, he studied at the universities of Dijon and Angers. Apparently, he had to quit university studies after involvement in a duel, and set off on the French equivalent of the Grand Tour of Europe, hastening home when the intended remarriage of his father threatened his inheritance. He first made his mark in intellectual circles as a mathematician: a probability puzzle (one of those questions which innumerates like me dismiss as ‘who cares?’) is named ‘Buffon’s needle’ after him. His work on natural history had a slightly odd beginning: his patron at court, Maurepas, held the (hereditary) position of administrator of the navy, and asked Buffon to investigate the suitability of trees (both native to France and from the French colonies) for ship-building. Exhaustive tests over a period of five years (with both models and full-size trees) followed, at the end of which Leclerc was appointed (again with the help of Maurepas) as head of the Jardin du Roi in Paris (now the Jardin des Plantes).
The King’s Garden had been founded in 1626 as a medicinal herb garden, and was opened to the public in 1640. Leclerc took over from a distinguished team including Tournefort and three members of the Jussieu family, but his (or his patron’s) ambition changed the garden radically. It was enlarged, reorganised and transformed into a major research institution which received flora (and fauna) from all over the world. He was made Comte de Buffon for his services in 1773, and remained in his post until his death.
As his English translator, William Smellie (a very remarkable man in his own right), observes: ‘Few writers have been more justifiably admired for originality, and grandeur of conception, than the celebrated Comte de Buffon.’ His influence on later generations of scientists, notably Lamarck and Cuvier, was immense, and many of his writings seem to teeter on the brink of a theory of evolution. (Although Darwin remarked in the ‘Historical Sketch’ at the beginning of the third edition of On the Origin of Species (1861) that he would pass over discussion of Buffon, ‘with whose writings I am not familiar’.) A member of the French Acadamy of Sciences since 1734, he was also admitted to the Académie Francaise, and in an address to that august body uttered the well-known phrase, ‘Le style c’est l’homme même.’
We wanted to ‘do’ Buffon in some shape or form, but were daunted by the size of the endeavour (and of the books!). We thought we would dip our toes in the water with the nine-volume English translation of the books on birds, published by Strahan, Cadell, and John Murray in 1793. We were worried by the books: the paper was not good, and the printing therefore somewhat irregular in density: and how would the numerous engraving of the birds reproduce?
Very well, as it turns out: the birds of prey in Volume 1 stand haughtily in profile – except, obviously, the owls, who stare out indignantly at the reader. Some of the birds are depicted at actual size, including the Colibri (Volume 6, facing page 40), whose long beak extends past the frame of the picture. In the same volume, and also at actual size, are two ‘fly-birds’ (facing page 1). Fly-birds? The Latin name, Trochilus, brings enlightenment – these are the humming-birds: ‘The precious stones and metals polished by our art cannot be compared to this jewel of nature.’
The names are fascinating, especially if, like me, you thought that after Linnaeus, all was simple and harmonious on the taxonomic front. Buffon was the first to name many of the foreign species (in French), but universal Latin names for many of them seem not to have been agreed upon by the time Smellie’s translation was published, and he helpfully lists all the variant names he has come across for a particular bird (including, occasionally, the Polish version), under that bird’s English name. And the names are enchanting: in Volume 4 alone we find the Organist, the Foolish Bunting, the Purple-Breasted Chatterer, the Cinereous Tinamou, the Tyrants of Carolina and Louisiana respectively, and the ‘Bird smaller than the Goldfinch, or Quatoztli of Brazil’.
My favourite British bird is the long-tailed tit, and I am lucky enough to have one flock (the collective noun should be ‘charm’, if the goldfinches hadn’t – reasonably, I grant you – taken it already) visiting my garden regularly, and another which likes to hang about in a clump of birch trees on the University Printing House site. Buffon calls them ‘la Mesange à longue Queue’ (Volume 5, p. 432); in Smellie’s English, they are ‘long-tailed titmice’; Linnaeus had Parus caudatus; Brisson, Parus longicaudus. Smellie has a footnote cross-referring to the Greek ‘Aigithalos oreinos’, or ‘mountain titmouse’, and having just checked on the RSPB website, I’m delighted to see that the Greek word is the correct nomenclature today: Aegithalus caudatus. Dipping into these nine volumes, my favourite Buffonian bird (so far) has to be a Chinese titmouse relative (not illustrated, alas) which the great man, having seen a dead specimen, named ‘la Mesange amoureuse’ (Volume 5, p. 454). Parus amatorius according to Gmelin, the great follower of Linnaeus, or Parus erastes, if you prefer Commerson, who seems to have been trying a bit of Greek vs Latin one-up-manship (both words meaning the same thing). But in English – the Amorous Titmouse.