Scoop Review of Books

Our Insect World

Book Review
An Exquisite Legacy: the life and work of New Zealand naturalist G.V. Hudson
by George Gibbs (Potton & Burton, 2020) $59.95
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Hudson cover-001Some years ago I wrote a short article, Collections of plants and animals, for Te Ara — the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, which started with a picture of a small part of the huge Hudson collection of insects, now held in Te Papa. In this beautifully illustrated volume, George Gibbs tells the story of naturalist G.V. Hudson, a pioneering New Zealand entomologist and illustrator.

Born in England, Hudson’s artistic talents were nurtured by his father who crafted stained-glass windows. By the time he was 9 he was already collecting and illustrating insects. In 1881 his father decided to emigrate the New Zealand, and the young naturalist was excited by a new and largely undescribed insect fauna. He quickly decided that he wanted to present New Zealand’s unique insect fauna to the general public in the style of illustrated natural history books available in Europe, and this was his over-riding interest for the rest of his life. To support himself, he worked for the Post Office. His routine job involved shift work, which allowed him leisure time for his insect studies.

Soon after his arrival in Wellington, Hudson started attending meetings of the Wellington Philosophical Society (precursor of the present Royal Society of New Zealand), and presented his first paper in 1882 (subsequently published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute), where he was to publish many papers over the years. Despite his youth, his expertise as an entomologist was recognized by other members of the small scientific community.

Although the emphasis in this book is on Hudson’s illustrations, he was always concerned with understanding the full life-history of the insects he studied. There are several case studies of the carefully documented research that Hudson undertook, of which I found his pioneering work on the New Zealand glow-worm particularly fascinating. In England he was familiar with local glow-worms, which are carnivorous beetles known as fireflies. But Hudson quickly recognized that New Zealand glow-worms are the larvae of a fly, not a beetle. He painstakingly collected, reared male and female specimens, and published a landmark paper, “The Habits and Life-History of the New Zealand Glowworm” documenting his observations and changing conclusions.

George Gibbs, the author of this biography and himself a distinguished biologist, is the grandson of G.V. Hudson, and holds his diaries and papers as well as most of his original drawings. This has allowed him to give a detailed account

Illustration of English insects in G.V. Hudson’s first diary, when he was 10 or 11 years old.

Illustration of English insects in G.V. Hudson’s first diary, when he was 10 or 11 years old.

of how Hudson worked and the development of the seven illustrated books published over the 65 years of his life in New Zealand. His first book, “An Elementary Manual of New Zealand Entomology” was completed in 1886 when he was aged only 19. There was a six-year delay while Hudson lobbied politicians and the scientific community for funds, but it was finally published with full colour illustrations) in 1892. Three large volumes on butterflies and moths, published in 1898, 1928 and 1939 are probably his best known works, but he also published illustrated books on aquatic insects and beetles.

Hudson worked alone throughout his career, although with a wide circle of correspondents. He was independent-minded, and never wanted to be employed by a scientific organization. Apart from entomology he was a keen astronomer, and had a good telescope and observatory at his home in Karori. His shift work with the Post Office (when he walked to and from town every day) made him aware of the value of daylight hours, and in 1895 he presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society proposing of seasonal time adjustment. The idea was ridiculed at the time, but Hudson can take credit for the first serious advocacy of annual daylight saving which is widely accepted today.

This book is a major contribution to the history of New Zealand science. The design and production by Potton & Burton are excellent, and I think that G.V. Hudson would be delighted with the reproduction of the selection of his insect paintings which illustrate the wide range of his work.