Benjamin Wilkes was a professional painter who following an introduction to the Aurelian Society in the early 1730’s began studying entomology. Wilkes was aided in his pursuits by Joseph Dandridge, one of the founders of the Aurelian Society (later the Royal Entomological Society), and given access to Dandridge’s considerable collection.
In 1742 Wilkes issued his first publication, Twelve new designs of English Butterflies depicting butterflies arranged geometrically in groups and in 1749, the far more ambitious The English Moths and Butterflies with text relying upon his observations but written by fellow Aurelian, William Baker. Wilkes portrayed the complete metamorphoses of the insects’ development from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly or moth with the plant upon which they grew using an unrivalled combination of artistic skill and considered scientific observation. Upon occasion, in order that his work did not become monotonous, he did replace the ‘host plant’ with one that was more interesting as often the insects fed on the same types.
Wilkes died from fever in the same year as his work was published. A second edition was issued in 1773 by Benjamin White, the first publisher to specialise in Natural History and whose publishing firm, Horace’s Head on Fleet Street, became an established meeting place for naturalists.
Wilkes’s great knowledge and love of his subject is evident in his work. At the time of this publication many of the species were little known whilst others were found in great abundance. Today, some of these species are in decline or altogether extinct thus lending an even greater poignancy to one of the most important works on British butterflies and moths.