Object of the Month

A Curiosity of Early Printing and Science from the Library of Laura Norcross Marrs

Planche C. des Quadrupedes Mezzotint

"Planche C. des Quadrupedes"

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This print of a turtle is one of several color illustrations found in Gautier D'Agoty's Observations sur L'Histoire Naturelle, sur la Physique et sur la Peinture, a periodical published in Paris between 1752 and 1756. In a note found in the front of the volume, the donor Laura Norcross Marrs singled out this print as remarkable in what was otherwise a "disagreeable book."

Gautier d'Agoty and the invention of color printing

Observations sur L'Histoire Naturelle was recently "rediscovered" during the cataloging of the library of Kingsmill Marrs and his wife, the former Laura Norcross. Part of a collection otherwise comprising English genealogical treatises, travel narratives, and other quotidian tomes, it stood out immediately as something different and special. Many early works in the MHS collection have hand colored plates, but the plates in this work were clearly of a mechanical nature. It took little work to discover that Observations was, in fact, a printing landmark—the first scientific periodical to feature illustrations printed in color.

Jacques Fabien Gautier d'Agoty, the creator of this work, was born 1716 in Marseilles, France. He showed an early talent for painting which developed into an interest in printing. In 1738, he moved to Paris, joining the workshop of Jacob Christoph Le Blon who had invented a method of producing color mezzotint prints using three plates. Le Blon realized that combinations of red, yellow, and blue could make any color and by 1704, he had developed a process to create multi-colored images by overprinting three mezzotint plates coated with transparent inks one after the other. The process was extremely painstaking, requiring that each plate be placed precisely in order to create the right mix of color. D'Agoty parted ways with Le Blon over a pay dispute soon after arriving and opened his own workshop, working to refine his mentor's process. After Le Blon's death in 1741, D'Agoty received a royal privilege from the King of France for color printing using four plates (rather than Le Blon's three). The December 1741 edition of Mercure de France, announces his receipt of privilege (comparable to copyright) along with a list of plates for sale and a color print of a shell. He was eventually joined in the printing business by his five sons, producing art reproductions, anatomical illustrations, and illustrations for periodicals.

Laura Norcross Marrs and the Marrs Library

Laura Norcross was born in 1845, the daughter of a prominent Boston family whose roots in Massachusetts extended back to 1636 when their ancestors settled in Salem and later, Watertown. Otis Norcross, Jr., her father, led Otis Norcross & Co. importers and retailers in china, glass and pottery in Boston and served as the nineteenth mayor of the city, from 1867-1868. He and his wife Lucy raised their family at 9 Commonwealth Avenue; the couple had eight children, only four of whom survived to adulthood.

William Dana Kingsmill Marrs, known as Kingsmill, was born in February, 1848, the son of Dana Francis Marrs and Jane Van Poelien of Canton, Mass. His father Dana, a native of Ireland, is listed in census sources as "Boots" in 1850 [presumably a bootmaker] and as a machinist in 1865. By 1870, the family had moved to Boston and Kingsmill embarked on a career in business. By the 1880s, ship passenger lists reveal that Kingsmill was working as a merchant and travelling between England and Boston. In December of 1896, 48-year-old Kingsmill married Laura Norcross, aged 51—a first marriage for both. From 1896 until 1905, the pair divided their time between "South Park," their home in Saxonville, Mass. (a village in north Framingham) and "Maitland Cottage," in Maitland, Florida. During her time in Florida, Mrs. Marrs became one of the founders of the Florida Audubon Society—performing critical advocacy at a time when thousands of birds in Florida and beyond were being slaughtered to provide plumage for ladies' hats. It is unclear when her passion for collecting books and prints began, although her print collecting efforts were apparently guided by Sylvester Rosa Koehler, the first curator of prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, a German émigré and expert in etching who lived in Roxbury.

After 1905, the couple went abroad to Europe and Egypt, where they devoted their time to travel and the collection of books and European prints and artwork. They eventually settled in Florence, Italy, where Kingsmill Marrs died in 1912 after a lengthy illness. He was buried there in the English Cemetery. After her husband's death, Laura returned to Boston, returning to her family home at 9 Commonwealth Avenue where she lived with her bachelor brother Grenville. She died in 1926 and is buried at Mount Auburn.

In May of 1919, Mrs. Marrs gave the books gathered during their life together to the Massachusetts Historical Society in memory of her husband. The Marrs Library is one of several so-called "Special Libraries" within the Society's collections, generally memorial collections of books given all at one time, kept together as a unit rather than being dispersed through the collection. The Marrs Library comprises almost 1000 titles, mostly focusing on English history and biography, but including travel books, art history, poetry, classics, and juvenile works. The work featured here is an outlier in terms of both age and subject matter. One imagines that it is the more explicit anatomical illustrations in this volume that Mrs. Marrs found so "disagreeable." In addition to the library, the MHS also has a sizable collection of photographs related to Kingsmill and Laura Marrs; miniature portraits of both Mr. and Mrs. Marrs; letters from Howard Carter, the famed Egyptologist, to Mrs. Marrs; and—perhaps most charmingly—rewards of merit earned by Laura and her brothers at a primary school taught by Mary Sigourney Watts.

The MHS was not the only beneficiary of Mrs. Marrs's largesse: she bequeathed her print collection and many artifacts to the Worcester Art Museum; a number of textiles to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts; and a collection of Native American artifacts to the Museo di Storia Naturale in Florence, Italy, to name just a few.

For Further Reading

Gascoigne, Bamber. How to Identify Prints A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Ink Jet (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986).

"Jacob Christophe Le Blon Invents the Three-Color Process of Color Printing (1719-1725)."

Lowengard, Sarah. "Industry and Ideas.The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe

The Getty Research Center's copies of Volume 1 and Volume 2 of Observations sur L'Histoire Naturelle are available online.

Two of Gautier d'Agoty's anatomical works Myologie Complette en Coleur (1746) and Anatomie de la Tete en Tableaux Imprimes (1748) are also available online.