Porcupines and Postage Stamps

Porcupine painted on wood from the Grylls’ crest

Having recently blogged about the Grylls’ Collection, imagine our delight a few weeks ago when we uncovered one of the porcupine emblems from the top of the Grylls’ crest which originally adorned the bookcases specially-designed for his books. For reasons of space, these bookcases were decommissioned in the 1960s.

The porcupine emblem led to some curiosity about other examples of porcupines in the Library collections.  An initial search through the catalogue revealed a diverse range of sources. Porcupines are depicted in medieval manuscripts (such as B.11.22) and in early printed books as well as being used as printers’ devices and on other family crests.

The device of Bartolomew Bonfadino and Tito Diani. It depicts a porcupine with its prickles raised in defence with the motto ‘Mordentes sauciabuntur’. N.12.30 [3] Azpilcueta, M. de, Commentarivs de datis et promissis pro ivstitia (Rome, 1583).


Capell R.10 The crest of the Sidney family. For a blog about the family see here.

Porcupines are species of rodent with sub families of New World Porcupines from North America and Old World porcupines from Europe, Africa and India.  These small nocturnal mammals are the largest of the rodent family with fur and long spines. These spines are primarily used as a deterrent. Porcupines are nervous creatures and will raise their spines as a warning, but used in defence the spines are released and can cause serious injury.  The New World porcupines are tree dwellers while their African/European cousins live on the ground.  Porcupines are born with the spines fully formed, they are soft at birth and harden within a few hours.

Conrad Gessner (1516-65) was a Swiss zoologist who like Pierre Belon was a trained physician. Both of these men researched classical sources, folklore and medieval bestiaries to compile their works. Gessner’s ambitious work Historiae animalium was published in Zurich from 1551 to 1558.  It was an attempt to describe all known animals and is known to be one of the most widely read Renaissance natural history works.

The copy in the Wren library is from 1602; it is bound in dark leather with wooden boards and a crest on the cover.  This giant work is a set of four volumes with 4,500 pages and 1200 wood cut engravings.  Gessner’s work is arranged alphabetically making it an early example of an encyclopedia.  The complete ‘history’ of each animal is explained and frequently illustrated.  Lucas Schan from Strasbourg was the illustrator credited by Gessner, but it is likely there were others. The book also contains copied illustrations from elsewhere, notably Durer’s Rhinoceros from a 1515 woodcut.  Historiae animalium includes a full page woodcut engraving of a porcupine. This image, like many others in this book, is distinctive though not scientifically accurate.


George Shaw (1751-1813) was an English botanist and zoologist who was educated in Oxford and ordained deacon before going on to study medicine in Edinburgh and lecture in botany. He continued his medical career in London but maintained his interest in natural history and was a founding member of the Linnean Society in 1788.  Elected a member of the Royal Society in 1789, he became assistant keeper of the natural history section at the British Museum in 1791.  From 1789 to 1813 he published the Naturalist’s Miscellany. Each issue included engraved and hand-coloured plates with descriptions in Latin and English.

The Wren library has his General Zoology which he began in 1800 but was unfinished at his death. This work comprises ten volumes, (Q.9.123-132), Volume II (Q.9.124) opens with a section on porcupines describing six different types with detailed illustrations of five of them.


George Shaw described many animals in detail for the first time including the animals of newly-settled Australia. With an easy and informative style, his works reached a wide audience.

The singular appearance of the porcupine, so different from that of the generality of quadrupeds, must in the earliest ages have attracted the attention even of the most incurious; the variegated spines or quills with which it is covered naturally suggesting the idea of a fierce and formidable animal: it is however, of a harmless nature and the quills are merely defensive weapons, which, when disturbed or attacked, the animal erects, and thus endeavours to repel his adversary.






Charles Theodosius Heath (1785-1848) was the chief engraver of the General Zoology. He was trained by his father James Heath (1757-1834) who was engraver to King George III. The British Museum holds a number of engravings by Charles Heath, the earliest of which was made when the artist was six years old. His varied career encompassed book publishing, and illustrating bank notes and together with his son, Frederick Augustus Heath (1810-1878), the first postage stamps including the Penny Black.




One thought on “Porcupines and Postage Stamps

  1. Pingback: Porcupines and Postage Stamps – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

Comments are closed.