by S. Peter Dance
Sacheverell Sitwell may have been the first to point out that seashells enliven the foreground scenery of several of Audubon's bird plates.
Scattered on the dull rocks and sands against which Audubon portrays some of his seabirds, they reminded Sitwell of the folding double frontispiece to Utamaro's Presents of the Ebb Tide which portrays a group of ladies walking on a shell-strewn shore. Dating from about 1790, this Japanese woodcut book includes, besides the gold-and-silver-embellished frontispiece, a series of plates of shells, hand coloured with rainbow tints. Known to me only from Sitwell's description, I should give a day of my life to see and handle it. The first edition of The Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1838, is another book worth that kind of sacrifice. Indeed, I did spend a day of my life, at Paisley Public Library in Scotland, handling and studying a complete copy of Audubon's magnificent, if ungainly, book. It was then, long after Sitwell had done so, that I noticed the seashells decorating -- for that is what they do -- some of Audubon's seashores.
My eye was drawn particularly to plate 409, showing two terns standing rigidly at the edge of a cliff looking out to sea. Near their feet lie two seashells and a sea urchin. I recognized the larger of the two seashells as a Junonia (Scaphella junonia), known only from localities around the south-eastern United States and the Gulf of Mexico. A moderately large, thick-shelled volute ringed about with large, brown spots, it normally lives off-shore. I assume its presence at the edge of a cliff in the aquatinted plate was to satisfy an artistic purpose. Whatever the reason, this illustration shows a shell considered very rare and desirable in Audubon's day. When his book was published, collectors considered no volute more desirable. In 1828, a London shell dealer Charles Dubois, said that "Perhaps not more than four can be traced in Europe." A few years previously another London-based shell dealer, John Mawe, had said in his Shell Collector's Pilot that he had received the Junonia from the Philippines. So Audubon's aquatint may represent the earliest correct indication of a locality for it: the southeastern seaboard of the United States.
But why Junonia? Or Junonia's Volute? Such a name demands an explanation and I have looked for one, with little success. Juno is the Roman version of Hera, the Greek goddess of marriage and childbirth. She was the sister and the wife of Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek Pantheon) whose many love affairs made her jealous and spiteful. Usually portrayed as a lady of stately or austere beauty, she has had her name bestowed on several members of the plant and animal kingdoms. Among plants there is a white lily, sometimes called Juno's Rose (Lilium candidum); and the pink-flowered Vervain, (Verbena officinalis), which, according to Gerard's Herbal of 1597, was also called "Juno's Teares." In the animal kingdom there are two or three insects (including Dione juno Cramer, a butterfly, and Stigmodera junonia Laporte and Gory, a beetle) and at least two other molluscs, (Helix juno Pfeiffer and Cardium junonia Lamarck -- now known as the True Heart Cockle, Corculum cardissa Linnaeus. As there is no distinctive visual feature shared by any of these, I conclude that Lamarck (following J.H. Chemnitz) called it Voluta junonia because he considered the shell to be a majestic but somewhat feminine object. Also it was customary then to apply a scientific name to an animal or plant based on a name purloined from classical mythology. The rows of large spots, distinguishing it from all other volutes, seem to have no relevance to the choice of name in this instance. Presumably Juno, unlike her spouse, was spotless.
I included the Junonia in my book Rare Shells (1969) because of its former celebrity and because it was -- and still is -- one of the more attractive and desirable of the many different existing volutes. So it is not surprising that I looked out for it during a lengthy sojourn in Florida. There was no shortage of examples in the many private collections it was my privilege to see when there in 1971, and I could have bought a dozen from as many shell dealers. But owning a Junonia was not the same as finding one. Most of all I wanted to find one at Sanibel Island. This was my first visit to that island where the streets are named after shells, where conchology is a religion, where no one walking on a beach looks anywhere but down, where everyone wants to find a Junonia. I was confident that enthusiasm combined with optimism and a little luck would be enough for me to find one.
There had been some strong on-shore winds before my arrival and the beaches were littered with shells, strings and bunches of molluscan eggs, dead horseshoe crabs and other flotsam. My chances of finding a Junonia, I thought, must have been increased immeasurably by this circumstance and I wandered the sandy beaches in the confident expectation of swooping down upon a Junonia, a rare Golden Olive, or some other Sanibel treasure. There were many beached shells around Sanibel in February 1971. The locals thought there were only too many. I saw them wrinkling their noses while shoveling piles of shells into deep pits dug in the sand. Each day I walked the sandy beaches, expecting to find at least one or two rarities. Each day I waded into the sea up to my knees, hoping to forestall a discovery by one of the army of collectors scouring the beaches for stranded treasures. The only reward for my adventurousness was a dozen sea- urchin spines embedded in my ankle.
On the day before my departure from the island I considered the options for discovery still open to me. I had explored almost every available beach, had even done so at night with a torch. I wondered what treasures might have been shovelled into the sand pits and considered buying a spade, but the thought of excavating their unsavoury contents checked me. Briefly I was tempted to pay the going price for a pristine example of my heart's desire in one of the island's shell shops. But paying the going price for a shell, or anything else, is merely a transaction. Besides, it would have been to admit defeat. I resisted the temptation and resigned myself to the likely prospect of leaving Sanibel without a Junonia.
With everything packed for my departure I took a final stroll along a beach crowded with shell seekers. Nonchalantly I shuffled along, occasionally kicking at the shells, driftwood and fishbones yet to be shovelled into sand pits. Sanibel had lured me with its reputation and I had made a pilgrimage to it in good faith, but it had ignored my homage and denied me its bounty. So many wasted hours, so many aches and pains, for nothing. I kicked another shapeless mound of flotsam into the sea, a fitting way to say good-bye to the shell collector's Mecca. The flotsam disintegrated. I watched the component pieces tumble about in front of me, a string of Lightning Whelk eggs, a moon snail, a grubby sea urchin, a Lettered Olive -- I had seen all these before, so many times -- and a shell with large brown spots on it, with large brown spots! A Junonia! I pounced upon it, brushed the sand away and gazed at it disbelievingly. Turning it over on my hand I saw that a large part of the body whorl was missing and the lip was badly chipped. Dipping it into a pool, I saw that it was badly faded too. These imperfections mattered not. I had found my Junonia!
At the day's end I strolled into a shell shop where I had already struck up an acquaintance with the proprietor and reverently placed my shell on the counter. "There you are," I said. "I've done it! I've got one." The proprietor, who was dealing with a grey-haired little lady, looked at me and smiled. Then, saying nothing, she opened a small cupboard behind her and extracted three magnificent examples of the Junonia. Her customer surveyed the three beauties, then looked at my poor, broken shell. Her eyes twinkled brightly as she turned and touched me on the shoulder. In a quiet voice suggesting New York or Chicago, she said, "I think I know what you mean. Congratulations." I walked out of the shell shop, the happiest pilgrim on Sanibel Island.
- Dubois, C. 1828. An Epitome of Lamarck's Arrangement of Testacea & C. 3rd Edition, London.
- Mawe, J. 1821. The Voyager's Companion, or Shell Collector's Pilot. 2nd edition. London.
- Sitwell, S. 1949. Audubon's American Birds from Plates by J.J. Audubon. With an Introduction and Notes on the Plates by Sacheverell Sitwell. Batsford, London.