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Geoscientist Online

William Smith’s Fossils Reunited

Wigley Smith Fossils reunitedWhilst we might wonder why it has taken so long for William Smith’s historically important writings to become available again, we should just be very grateful that this has now happened with the publication of William Smith’s Fossils Reunited. In this the 250th anniversary of Smith’s birth and the bicentenary year of Smith’s annus horribilis—his incarceration for debt in 1819—his two most important works, Strata Identified by Organized Fossils and A Stratigraphical System of Organized Fossils etc. have been republished together and with considerable ‘added value’. For the latter we have to thank the editor, Peter Wigley, his team and the publishers for a book with such high production values and reasonable price. A key element to the success of this new edition is the identification of Smith’s original fossils, and the updating of their taxonomy and excellent photographic reproduction by Jill Darell and Diana Clements of the Natural History Museum. The tragedy is that it took Smith’s financial difficulties, bankruptcy and sale of his fossil collection to the British Museum to ensure their long-term survival.
 
Whilst today we are used to high-quality and detailed images of fossils, the visual impact and verisimilitude of the 200-year-old, originally hand-coloured images is remarkable. Any geologist with some knowledge of English fossils can recognize them. Another tragedy for Smith was that relatively few copies of his works were sold and the series was never completed, consequently they did not become as widely known as they deserved to be.
 
As we can now appreciate, Smith was incredibly lucky to have met James Sowerby, his engraver, publisher and something of a kindred spirit. Sowerby certainly seems to have indulged some of Smith’s less-practical ideas, such as printing the fossil illustrations on paper coloured to match that of their stratigraphical unit as seen on his map. As a result, the definition and appearance of fossil printed on dark paper, such as the greenish-blue Greensand is not as good as those on paler coloured papers.
 
To fully appreciate William Smith’s Fossils Reunited you need to own a copy and browse the full extent and depth of its scholarship, which this short review has barely touched upon.
 
Reviewed by Douglas Palmer

WILLIAM SMITH’S FOSSILS REUNITED, by Peter Wigley (ed) with Jill Darrell, Diana Clements & Hugh Torrens, 2019. Published by: The Dolan Charitable Trust & Halgrove Publishing (hbk.) 160 pp. ISBN: 9780857043375 List price: £34.99 W: www.halsgrove.com or https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/WSFR