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Philip Rashleigh and his 'Specimens of British Minerals' (1797 and 1802).


Philip Rashleigh is famous among mineral collectors for the superb Cornish mineral collection he assembled, and among book collectors for the beautifully illustrated two-volume description of his best specimens which he published in 1797 and 1802. These two volumes, with their handcolored engravings, stand with the works of James Sowerby as the finest English colored mineralogies produced in their day. Much of Rashleigh's mineral collection is still preserved, and is one of the few private mineral collections in the world to have survived more or less intact for nearly two centuries.


In about 1765 the most celebrated of all Cornish mineral collectors started his activities: Philip Rashleigh (1729-1811) of Menabilly, near Fowey.

So wrote Embrey and Symes (1987) in their review of Cornish mineralogy and mineral collecting history. Philip Rashleigh, M.P., F.G.S., F.R.S., F.A.S.(*), was born on 28 December 1729 in Aldermanbury, London. He was the eldest son of Jonathan Rashleigh, a Member of Parliament and a distinguished Cornish landowner. He attended New College at Oxford beginning in 1749, but left Oxford without earning a degree (Stephen and Lee, 1917).

His interest in natural history manifested itself early; the young "Philip Rashleigh, Esq.; of Menabilly" is listed among the subscribers to William Borlase's Natural History of Cornwall in 1758. Following the death of his father in 1764 he was elected a Member of Parliament for the family borough of Fowey (or Fawy), and sat continuously until the dissolution of 1802, when he became known as "the Father of the House of Commons."

Living in Cornwall, Rashleigh was well situated to collect the superb specimens of copper, lead and tin minerals from nearby mines. As his collection grew, so did his reputation. As early as 1794, William Maton, in his Observations on the Western Counties, referred to Rashleigh's collection as "rich and magnificent." Similar comments appeared in gazetteers and travel guides of the day.

Scientists and astute observers have praised Philip Rashleigh and his collection for nearly two centuries. Remarkable is the fact that this great assemblage of Cornish and worldwide mineral species has remained largely intact, for the most part housed in two venerable British institutions, the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, and the Natural History Museum, London.

Almost as important as the still-intact collection is the 265-page manuscript collection catalog in Rashleigh's own hand. In reviewing the catalog, it becomes apparent that he was an early advocate of accurate locality information. Rashleigh also attempted to indicate rarity of species by noting r, rr, or rrr (for the rarest) after each specimen listed.

A second catalog, done by Arthur Aiken three years after Philip's death, coupled with much of Rashleigh's correspondence, provides researchers with valuable insights into mineral collecting during the man's lifetime. The major portion of the collection, its catalogs, and his correspondence are housed at the County Museum in Truro where they are still under study.

Reading through the Rashleigh correspondence one is struck by a number of his observations, which are as pertinent today as they were in Rashleigh's time. Complaints include the high price of minerals and the difficulty in getting good specimens. He grouses about outsiders coming into the area, offering too much for a specimen, and messing up the local market. And he voices a complaint about the science becoming too technical for his taste!


Throughout the literature there are various estimates of the size of Rashleigh's collection. One writer estimated it at some 25,000 pieces, surely a gross exaggeration. Rashleigh's own catalog lists 3,902 specimens but many more were uncataloged.

Russell (1952) reports that the original Rashleigh collection was housed at Menabilly, Rashleigh's ancestral home, in eight cabinets and 10 meters of wall cases with drawers underneath.

Stockdale (1824) extolled the virtues of the collection:

Among the most remarkable specimens in this collection are green carbonate of lead with quartz, blende with twenty sided crystals and green fluors in crystals; crystallized antimony, with red blende on quartz, yellow copper ore with opal, and arseniate of copper in cubes of bright green colour.

Few collections can boast so many scientifically notable specimens. For example, Rashleigh (1797) was the first to illustrate and describe bournonite, though credit went to Count de Bournon who analyzed and described a Mexican specimen which can still be seen on display at the Museum of Natural History, Paris. (Rashleigh's correspondence suggests he was not a particular fan of Bournon, nor is Bournon listed among Rashleigh's sources of specimens in his catalog.) Rashleigh acquired several of the bournonites from Wheal Boys ("Wheal" = mine), St. Endellion. The earlier name for the mineral was, in fact, endellionite. The better pieces ended up in the Russell collection in the Natural History Museum, London. One has been on display there with the original description by Rashleigh.

Aside from the bournonite, Rashleigh's collection contains other specimens which went undescribed until the publication of his volumes. These include scorodite, chalcophyllite, connellite and clinoclase. He was also the first to illustrate and describe mendipite and bayldonite (Smale, personal communication).

During Rashleigh's collecting era some major discoveries were made. For example, a large quantity of delicate white jackstraw cerussite was found at the Pentire Glaze mine, Endellion. Most notable would have to be his stunning liroconite from Wheal Gorland. Considered the premier specimen in the Rashleigh collection, the liroconite is a single blue monoclinic crystal on matrix, along with minor crystals. The major crystal measures 3.5 cm by 1.9 cm. It came to light in 1808, from a rich oxide zone encountered at Wheal Gorland. Liroconite was also found at Wheal Unity. Both these mines have been exceptional sources of secondary oxide minerals.

Another exceptional species found in the Rashleigh collection is the series of nearly spherical clinoclase crystal groups. The largest measures 2.5 cm across on matrix, and is a rich, deep blue color, also from Wheal Gorland.

The olivenite suite in the Rashleigh collection is also exceptional. Tincroft, Illogen, was his main source of the rich green acicular crystals forming velvet sprays and linings in open vugs. The deep blue acicular crystals of connellite from Wheal Gorland and Wheal Muttrell (which was later engulfed by Wheal Gorland), plus Wheal Providence in the same area, is also worthy of note. The sharp needles several millimeters long, scattered over a copper oxide matrix, were an unknown mineral when acquired by Rashleigh.

Another noted feature of the Rashleigh assemblage of minerals, but unfortunately no longer in existence, was a grotto which he had built on the estate. It was lined with fine specimens of minerals, shells and examples of the local granites. Redding (1842) describes it:

In the grounds there is an artificial grotto: pebbles, crystals, and shells are the materials of the building. The form is octagonal, and six of the sides contain collections of different Cornish ores of tin, silver, copper, lead, and iron. Fossils, agates, jaspers, quartz, fluor spar, together with shells, coralloides [sic], and similar objects are very appropriately arranged among them . . . One of the finest specimens of chalcedony ever discovered is treasured here [as well as] a beautiful table . . . composed of 32 specimens of Cornish granite.

It must have been something to see. Embrey and Symes (1987) show a painting of a grotto something along the lines of the one described above.


Rashleigh had been thinking about issuing some type of illustrated description of his specimens for several years. In 1791 he wrote to his friend and fellow collector John Hawkins:

I wish I could find a good clever man to draw and colour some of my minerals, as I think some are worth notice; I would hire such a person, if to be found on moderate terms, but I should not like an indifferent Hand.

Ultimately Rashleigh is said to have hired a prominent Cornish enamel painter named Henry Bone (1755-1834) to prepare 33 engraved, handcolored plates illustrating 194 mineral specimens. (A close examination of these plates, however, shows them to be the work of two or three different engravers.) Rashleigh wrote a brief descriptive text to accompany them, and published the volume in 1797 under the title: Specimens of British Minerals, Selected from the Cabinet of Philip Rashleigh, of Menabilly, in the County of Cornwall, Esq. M.P. F.R.S. and F.A.S., with General Descriptions of each Article. It was printed by W. Bulmer and Company in London, and offered for public sale through G. Nicol ("Bookseller to His Majesty") in Pall Mall and Messrs. White on Fleet Street.

Rashleigh may not have been entirely satisfied with the renderings of his specimens. In the Introduction he writes:

There is great difficulty in representing minerals on paper, and very few artists are to be met with who have any practice or experience in this line; it will therefore not be very extraordinary if these representations should not give the satisfaction expected; though nothing has been omitted that might tend to promote that object.

Despite these misgivings on Rashleigh's part, the book was apparently a successful seller, and is recognized today as the first attractive color-illustrated mineral book to be produced in England. Inscribed copies are almost unknown, so most copies must actually have been sold rather than given away.

The original binding as issued by the printer was a blue and red marbled paperboard cover of the kind commonly produced in the 18th century. These were intended to be temporary; the buyer was expected to have the books permanently bound to his own taste. A gray paper backstrip was wrapped around the spine, and a small printed label reading British Minerals Rashleigh 1797 was glued on.

The success of the 1797 volume gave Rashleigh sufficient encouragement to begin work on a second volume. This time he employed at least three artists, two of whom had some familiarity with minerals. Rashleigh's sister Rachel was enlisted to paint some of the original "masters." (She had married the St. Austell physician, John Gould, who was apparently also a mineral collector, having been recorded in Rashleigh's catalog as supplying specimens to him.) A well-known watercolorist named Thomas Richard Underwood (1765-1836) was hired to design at least 12 of the plates. Then a London engraver named Thomas Medland prepared from these the engraved plates.

Underwood was that rare combination of a competent geologist and also a successful artist. He was a Fellow of the Geological Society, and apparently he too was a mineral collector because, like Gould, he is recorded in Rashleigh's catalog as being a source of specimens.

Two additional relatives of Rashleigh produced painted "masters" which remain unpublished: Miss Harriot Rashleigh and Miss E Rashleigh. (These and all of the other originals were acquired by Sir Arthur Russell in 1944 and presented to the Natural History Museum, London).

It was around this time that Rashleigh became acquainted with James Sowerby, who produced for him four beautiful, still-unpublished plates depicting olivenite specimens from Wheal Unity (Russell, 1952). This contact may have encouraged Sowerby to begin producing his own series of color-illustrated mineral descriptions in 1802 (entitled British Mineralogy: or Coloured Figures intended to Elucidate the Mineralogy of Great Britain).

Some of the above-mentioned unpublished illustrations may have been intended for use in a third (never published) volume; one painting shows the famous liroconite, not acquired until 1811.

Rashleigh's second volume appeared in 1802, with 21 handcolored plates depicting 48 specimens and a geologic column illustrating the strata overlying the cassiterite-bearing alluvial deposit at Poth, St. Blazey. These plates are, on the average, drawn and colored in somewhat better detail than those in the first volume, so Rashleigh's efforts at improvement bore some success. Surprisingly, as recently as 1980 visitors to the Truro Museum could purchase original loose plates from the two volumes.

According to Courtenay Smale, who has made a special study of the Rashleigh collection, some 90 specimens figured in the works of Rashleigh and Sowerby remain today in the collection and are available for study! (Here we use the term "collection" to include all known Rashleigh specimens regardless of housing.)

Stockdale (1824) reviewed the Rashleigh volumes as follows: "A very valuable work was published a few years ago, entitled, Specimens of British Minerals . . . embellished with drawings by Underwood and Bone." But not all contemporary writings were complimentary of Rashleigh's work. Constable (1808) printed a review of the two-volume work that was both complimentary and caustic. Rashleigh's effort, he said, was "highly laudable" but the brief text came in for some serious review. "We do not bestow any particular consideration on the text, which was obviously introduced merely to render the plates intelligible." Rashleigh's " . . . few explanatory observations are so unobtrusive and unpretending, that they afford little room for remark. . . ."

Constable's disdain for the text is understandable. The text consists of nothing but rather overblown figure captions, of which the following is a particularly uninstructive example:

Fig. 1. - Is copper ore, with a thin coat of blue purple color over yellow copper ore, upon which are formed small crystals of copper ore, with prisms of six sides, and truncated ends of a bright steel color, lying fiat on the mammillary or stalactitic ore: a is one of the steel-colored crystals of copper ore, a little magnified. From Cook's Kitchen.

There is little in these words which is not already apparent from the illustration. "Copper ores from Cook's Kitchen" would have been as informative. But Rashleigh admitted in the introduction to volume II that he did "not profess to be well enough acquainted with the science and nomenclature of modern chemistry." Rashleigh's collection was, in any case, assembled at a time when the nomenclature of mineralogy was rudimentary and in a state of flux. Quartz was still silex to some, and yellow copper ore, for example, was yet to be named chalcopyrite.

Even the very nature of the color plates was criticized; the fact that the drawings bore strong resemblance to the actual subjects wasn't enough for at least one reviewer:

To the superficial observer, this [resemblance] may appear quite enough; and to those who merely look at minerals as children do at pictures, to regale their eyes with vivid colours, this work will be a treasure. Surely it was not for their use only that it was designed; and yet we fear few others will find it profitable.

One further complaint focused on the crystal drawings on some of the plates. "Even these detached figures are inaccurately drawn." Altogether, the review could not have brought much joy to Menabilly!


When Rashleigh died in 1811 the collection at Menabilly was willed to a nephew, William Rashleigh, since Philip had no issue. William continued collecting minerals for about 25 years, during which time he gave a portion of the collection to his son Jonathan. The major collection remained at Menabilly until 1903 when it was sold by the family to the Royal Institution of Cornwall where it remains today. That portion of the collection which went to Jonathan in 1838 was eventually traced by Sir Arthur Russell and purchased by him in 1923. Russell later obtained another small portion of the collection in 1958, in all no more than 50 Rashleigh specimens. Because of his high social standing, Russell was in a unique position to obtain entrance into the manor homes of England where old collections of "natural curiosities" might be housed. This was our good fortune for his huge collection, over 40,000 specimens now in the Natural History Museum, London, reflects his success in ferreting out such treasures including important Rashleigh pieces.

Little was done with the Rashleigh collection at Truro until 1951 when it was placed in its final arrangement on display by curator H. L. Douch, a Mrs. Knott, and Arthur Russell. Since then, diligent efforts have been made by Douch, R. D. Penhallerick and Courtenay Smale to ferret out more of this important collection's history. The Rashleigh file of correspondence and catalogs has been particularly helpful in this regard.

A few years ago I visited Menabilly, along with Courtenay Smale, through the courtesy of present-day descendant Philip Rashleigh and his wife [since deceased]. In a small, round, glass-topped table five specimens remain. One has a Russell label and one an original Rashleigh label in each writer's distinctive handwriting. Also in this glass-topped table is one of the glass models of a hailstone mentioned in the Dictionary of National Biography as having fallen on the Menabilly estate on Oct. 20, 1791; this model was undoubtedly made at Rashleigh's behest.

Today the Truro portion of the collection is displayed and housed in a new hall in sloping glass cases with drawers underneath. The Natural History Museum, London, has pieces on display, but the bulk is housed in the upstairs "Russell room" with that collection.


"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." So wrote Daphne du Maurier as the opening line of her modern romantic legend, Rebecca. The book was acclaimed worldwide when it appeared and was the basis for an award-winning Hitchcock movie. When she wrote that line du Maurier was actually referring to Menabilly, Rashleigh's ancestral home.

As a teenager in the 1920's Lady du Maurier had searched out a gray moorstone house she had seen while fishing out on Tywardreth Bay. The house was Menabilly, unoccupied at the time. Being an easily impressed teenager, Daphne fantasized about that lonely home. In her words:

One family had lived within her walls. They had been born there. They had loved, they had quarreled, they had suffered, they had died. And out of these emotions she had woven a personality for herself, she had become what their thoughts and their desires had made her. (du Maurier, 1981)

Du Maurier went back to that house repeatedly, eventually gaining entry to the vacant edifice and describing what she saw. It is obvious that Rashleigh's Menabilly, built in 1596, played a signal role in the development of the Rebecca storyline. I doubt if any other mineral collector's home ever received such noteworthy treatment. Her description could have been written in the 1980's; our visit revealed much that she had seen over 50 years earlier.

One other note on literature worthy of mention here involves Rashleigh himself. Because the Rashleigh collection was well-known it was visited frequently by the scholarly and the curious. At times Rashleigh must have been curt to the curious, one of whom was Sir Walter Scott of Ivanhoe fame. Scott was refused entry to the collection, and so vowed to settle the score. He did so when he wrote Rob Roy, published in 1817.

The story tells of two brothers, one a villainous scoundrel, whom Scott purposely named Rashleigh Osbondistone! Scott's description portrays a most objectionable fellow:

He was low of stature - bull-necked and cross-made. The features of Rashleigh were such as, having looked upon, we in vain wish to banish from our memories to which they secur [sic] as objects of painful curiosity. We dwell upon them with a feeling of dislike, even disgust.

The portrait of Philip Rashleigh hanging in the Museum at Truro (shown here) does not much resemble Scott's creation, but the name leaves little doubt whom Scott had in mind! Ironically, Rob Roy was published six years after Rashleigh's death so Scott's revenge was hollow.


With the publication of an illustrated two-volume work on his collection, Rashleigh made a major contribution to the mineral literature of his time. His initial description of several species, the superb rendition of species through color illustrations, coupled with his diligent cataloging, has given researchers much historically valuable information.

The fortunate happenstance that his collection has remained largely intact through the better part of two centuries, thanks to the efforts of the Rashleigh family, Sir Arthur Russell and the Royal Institution of Cornwall, makes the Rashleigh texts and collection invaluable to the science and literature of the mineralogy of his time.


I am particularly grateful to Courtenay Smale of Newquay, Cornwall, who was involved in this project from its beginnings and whose counsel and generous sharing of knowledge was invaluable. Peter Embrey (now retired) granted access to the Russell/Rashleigh collection at the Natural History Museum, London. He (and Robert Symes) made possible the viewing of the unpublished drawings of Rashleigh minerals at the library, and freely shared his own extensive library for research. At the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Roger Penhallerick and H. L. Douch gave generously of their time while giving access to the Rashleigh collection for study and photography. Si Frazier and Lawrence Conklin critically reviewed the manuscript. Helpful additions to the text were provided by Dr. Wendell E. Wilson.

Special thanks go to Philip Rashleigh and his wife (now deceased) and to Richard Rashleigh, who continues to live in Menabilly, Cornwall, for allowing us to visit and photograph their ancestral home and view the interesting materials there.

* Member of Parliament, Fellow of the Geological Society, Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the Antiquarian Society.


CONSTABLE, A. (1808) The Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal. April-July 1804, vol. IV, Fourth Edition, Edinburgh.

DU MAURIER, D. (1938) Rebecca. Doubleday, New York, 357 p.

DU MAURIER, D. (1981) The Times. Sat., Sept. 12, 1981, pg. 13 as quoted from The Rebecca Notebook.

EMBREY, P. G., and SYMES, R. F. (1987) Minerals of Cornwall and Devon. British Museum (NH) and Mineralogical Record Inc., Tucson, 154 p.

MATON, W. G. (1797) Observations relative chiefly to the National History, Picturesque Scenery, and the Antiquities of the Western Countries of England, 1794-1796, J. Eaton, London, 155.

REDDING, C. (1842) Illustrated Itinerary of the Country of Cornwall. How and Parsons, London, 100.

RUSSELL, A. (1952) Philip Rashleigh of Menabilly, Cornwall, and his mineral collection. Journal of the Royal Institute of Cornwall, 1, 96-118.

SCOTT, W. (1817) Rob Roy. Reprint, New York Editions Club, New York, 294 p.

STEPHEN, L., and LEE, S. (1917) The Dictionary of National Biography, XVI, 743; Oxford University Press.

STOCKDALE, F. W. L. (1824) Excursions in the County of Cornwall. Simpkin and Marshal, London, 40-41.
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Title Annotation:Mineral Books
Author:Jones, Robert W.
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Previous Article:Fabien Gautier d'Agoty and his 'Histoire Naturelle Regne Mineral' (1781).
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