Discovering Alexander von Humboldt: Guest post by Katy Cox, February, 2020

February 8, 2020

One of the many great things about the Shackleton Exhibition FB page is the range of interests and specialities of its followers and readers. Just in case you are in any doubt about this, here is a guest post from Katy Cox, a friend and contributor to the page. This post gives an introduction to the work that Katy is conducting at Hanworth and the significance of Alexander von Humboldt. The idea for a post here has been on the to-do list for a little while as life gets in the way of such projects and I am very grateful to Katy for taking the time to contribute to the blog here and tell us of her work. It makes for very engaging reading and I hope it will spring the interests of its readers forward to more Humboldt research. Thanks again to Katy. (Liam at the Shackleton Exhibition.)



Discovering Alexander von Humboldt

I am researching the local history of Hanworth, Middlesex; part of that research includes the history of Hanworth Park House and part of that research led me to a library that was once housed there. I am quite fascinated by explorers and my attention was drawn to a particular collection of books in the library by an author named Humboldt. I had heard of the Humboldt penguin and I wondered could there be a connection. My quest to find out more about Humboldt led me to Liam; he asked me if I would like to write a piece on Humboldt for the Shackleton Exhibition blog. I’ll give a little introduction to Hanworth Park House and its library, followed by information on Humboldt.

Library Auction Catalogue description: This is the most expensive, and perhaps the most magnificent work, which has ever issued from the press. THE PLATES are SPLENDIDLY EXECUTED ON A VERY EXTENSIVE SCALE, and form a grand and brilliant illustration of the scenery buildings, zoology and botany of New Spain.[1]

Lot 600

Also included in the catalogue is Lot 297: Humboldt’s Aspects of Nature, 2 vols., 1849 and Lot 298: Humboldt’s Cosmos, translated by Mrs Sabine, 4 Vols., 1847-48.[2]


Hanworth Park House

Autumn, 2019.

Hanworth Park House is  a semi-derelict Grade II listed country house, built circa 1828 for Henry Perkins.[3]  [Building research ongoing.]

The Perkins family lived in Hanworth Park from 1828 to 1872: Henry Perkins from 1828 to his death in 1855. In 1855, it was passed to his son, Algernon. Algernon died in 1872, which was followed in 1873 by his executors putting the entire estate up for sale.[4]

During Henry’s lifetime he had amassed a small but very well respected library, his son Algernon also added a few titles.

What can the house tell us about the library?

Nothing, for there is not any physical evidence in any of the rooms.

The ballroom – Autumn, 2019.

We have learnt, though, from the 1873 sale catalogue of the Hanworth Park estate, that there was a particular room that was used as library – now referred to as the ballroom.[5]


The Great Library at Hanworth

How did we learn of what was in the Perkins library?

I came across an online copy of an auction catalogue for the Perkins Library, I had not known of the existence of the library before that discovery. We are very lucky that the library was put up for auction and that an auction catalogue was printed and distributed, and is available online. Without that catalogue, we would only know of about 1% of the library’s contents, through mentions in books and newspaper articles and through the provenance of a few incunabula in various libraries.[6]

Auction catalogue

I have taken on the joyous task of researching the catalogue, which is a very pleasant learning curve. The catalogue consists of 865 lots. Each lot being one or more titles, each title may be one or more volumes. In total there are 1,466 separate titles – totalling 5,596 separate volumes. eg Lot 1 is a single title of 18 volumes, lot 2 a single title of 80 volumes and lot 3 is 4 separate titles with a total of 8 volumes.

Why was the auction advertised as in the ‘Great Library’? It was partly because of the many very rare and beautifully illuminated manuscripts, (the earliest date being two fragments from the 9th century [Lot 738]), its remarkable collection of bibles, the earliest examples of printing (in Europe) on vellum, two volumes of Gutenberg Bibles, one on paper and one on vellum, the 4 editions of Shakespeare’s folios, and important county histories.

The final total at the auction was £25,594 . 4s.; the relative value today is from two million pounds.[7] The Humboldt lot sold for £63.00; the relative value today is from £5,483.[8]

The following description of Henry Perkins and his library is taken from an article in The Daily Telegraph, June 9 1873. The writer of the article was overawed by the amount that the vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible fetched (dated 1450-55):

‘It seems incredible – £3,400.00 for a single book! The money could buy a small estate; it would purchase a comfortable annuity; it would cover the expenses of a contested election.’

The article states that the Perkins Library had long been famous in Europe as the finest private collection that had ever been amassed by an English Bibliophile.[9]

Where they a collection of books only collected for their beauty and rarity? No, for the library also contained an amazing collection of reference books on many subjects: archaeology, angling, astronomy, bees, birds (British, European, Himalayan, Australian, American.), brewing, chemistry, chess, classics, drama, dictionaries, dogs, encyclopaedias, explorers, falconry,  farm insect, fiction, geography, history, horsemanship, mechanics,  music scores, natural history, navigation, physics, poetry,  religion, seamanship, theatre, travel, trees, and veterinary medicine. The collection of those reference books became obvious once I discovered that Henry and Algernon were members of many different organisations and societies.[10] My favourite books are those of the explorers, hence my excitement and fascination with the works of Humboldt.


Friedrich Wilhem Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

You may also have heard of the Humboldt Penguin, but there are more things named after Humboldt than anyone else who ever lived: an ocean current off the west coast of South America, plants, animals, monuments, parks, rivers, geyser, bay, waterfalls, counties, lakes, a squid, and a major glacier in Greenland, whose front is 68 miles wide. In Fridtiof Nansen 1861-1893, glaciers in Norway are described as pygmies and dwarfs in comparison with the Humboldt glacier.[11] It has lost 200 square kilometres of area since 1982, mostly lost since 2000.[12] Similarly, another glacier named after Humboldt, ‘Pico Humboldt’, in Venezuela has all but disappeared.[13]

Who was Humboldt? He was a Prussian scientific explorer, who between 1799 and 1804, travelled extensively in Latin America, exploring and describing it for the first time from a modern scientific point of view. His description of the journey was written up and published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years. link He drew everything from llamas and penguins to tents and pulley systems. His companion was Aimé Jacque Alexandre Bonpland, a French explorer and botanist. He co-authored volumes of the scientific results of their expedition.

I asked the author of The Invention of Nature and The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, Andrea Wulf, her opinion of Humboldt’s work in the Perkins Library.

Andrea Wulf is a historian, lecturer and author of The Invention of Nature: a biography of Humboldt and The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt: a graphic work based on the style of Humboldt’s books; I cannot recommend them highly enough – The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt is stunningly beautiful – and informative. Wulf has studied Humboldt for ten years. In her works and lectures on Humboldt, she sets out to restore Humboldt to his rightful place in the pantheon of natural scientists.

In Andrea’s reply to my question, she stated:

‘This is a very fine collection of Humboldt’s work and an indication of a very wealthy and discerning owner.

‘Veu Des Cordilliers is insanely beautiful and was ridiculously expensive as are the atlases, botanical and zoological publications, not even Humboldt owned all of his books because they were so expensive.

‘This is an incredibly fine collection of Humboldt’s books. The owner must have been an avid natural history fan.’[14]

Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the world, he invented the web of life: the concept of nature as we know of it today.[15] Separate disciplines were emerging such as botany, zoology, geology and chemistry, but ignored the global view that would later become Humboldt’s hallmark.[16]

Top right image: Scientific illustrations, Humboldt once wrote, should ‘speak to the senses without fatiguing the mind.’ His famous illustration of Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador shows plant species living at different elevations.’[17]

Humboldt was the first to document that the earth’s magnetic field decreases closer to the equator and of his discovery of the magnetic equator, 7o degrees and 500 miles south of the geographic equator.[18] Was that work of any importance and did it live on after him? Yes, for in R.F. Scott’s The Voyage of Discovery, 1905, he acknowledged the early work of Humboldt on terrestrial magnetism; he emphasised the importance of terrestrial magnetism in its application in polar exploration and its importance for the navigation of vessels.[19] In Antarctic Adventure and Research, 1930, Taylor discusses the problems of navigation,

‘…there is a notable difference between the direction of the magnetic needle and the true north-south line… indicated by the meridian.’

Taylor states that Humboldt was the ‘first to chart the line of magnetic force over any large area of the world.’[20]

Darwin wrote that had he not read Humboldt he would not have boarded The Beagle, nor conceived of the Origin of Species. Wulf has seen Darwin’s copies of Humboldt’s books (which Darwin kept on a shelf next to his hammock on The Beagle, 1831-1836), filled with Darwin’s pencil remarks.[21]

Is Humboldt relevant today? Very much so, as shown by the events surrounding the 250th anniversary of his birth recently held and still ongoing, in Berlin. In September 2019, the German Society of Pennsylvania also held a celebration for the anniversary of his birth, held at the statue of Humboldt in the images above.[22]

A recent article in the Journal of Biogeography, June 2019, by four academic scientists, illustrate the breadth and depth of Humboldt’s work and of his relevance today:

‘We argue that his influence remains strong—mainly because his approach to science inspired others and was instrumental in furthering other scientific disciplines (such as evolution, through Darwin, and conservation science, through Muir)—and that he changed the way that large areas of science are done and communicated. Indeed, he has been called the father of a range of fields, including environmental science, earth system science, plant geography, ecology and conservation. In biogeography, his influence remains strong, including in relating climate to species distributions (e.g. biomes and latitudinal and elevational gradients) and in the use of remote sensing and species distribution modelling in macroecology’.[23]

And a final few words from Humboldt – in 1800 he wrote,

‘… humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on future generations. Forests enrich the atmosphere with moisture, its cooling effect, water retention and protection against soil erosion.’[24]



[1] Hathi Trust,, The Perkins library. A catalogue of the very valuable and important … Perkins, Henry, 1778-1855, p. 67. link 

[2] Hathi Trust, ibid., p.

[3] Sidetracks in History, Perkins Family; (K. Cox), (Nov 2019). link

[4] Sidetracks in History, ibid. link

[5] London Metropolitan Archives, DRO/018/H/02/025, The Mansion – Hanworth Park, 1873.

[6] Hathi Trust, op. cit. link

[7] Measuring Worth,, Relative value. link

[8] Measuring Worth, ibid. link

[9] Daily Telegraph, Monday, 9 June, 1873.

[10] Sidetracks in History, op. cit., link

[11] W. C. Brogger & N. Rolfsen, Fridtiof Nansen 1861-1893, translated by W. Archer (London, 1896), p. 128.

[12] M. Pelto, Glaciologist, Professor Nichols College, humboldt-glacier-retreat-greenland, From a Glaciers Perspective, 4 September, 2010. link; Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, (London, John Murray, 2015), p.7.

[13][13]  J. Gutiérrez & M. F. Rodríguez, The Atlantic,, Watching Venezuela’s Last Glaciers disappear (15 January, 2019). link

[14] Email:  A. Wulf, Author (September, 2019).

[15]A. Wulf, op. cit., p. 5.

[16] A. Wulf, ibid., p. 22.

[17],, history, The Pioneering Maps of Alexander von Humboldt. link

[18] A. Wulf, ibid., p. 90.

[19] R. F. Scott, The Voyage of the ‘Discovery’ Vol. I (London, 1905), p. 15.

[20] G. Taylor, Antarctic Adventure and Research (London, 1930), p. 4.

[21] Wulf A, op. cit., p. 8.

[22] Visit Berlin,, 250 Anniversary Alexander von Humboldt; Association for Public Art,, Alexander von Humboldt (1871). link

[23] F. Schrodt, M. J. Santos, J. J. Bailey & R. Field, Journal of Biogeography, Challenges and opportunities for biogeography—What can we still learn from von Humboldt? (June, 2019).  link

[24] A. Wulf, op. cit., p. 5.



With grateful thanks to Liam Maloney for information on Polar explorers’ works and to Andrea Wulf for her comments on Humboldt’s books.

London Metropolitan Archives, DRO/018/H/02/025, The Mansion – Hanworth Park, 1873.

 Email:  Wulf A, Author (Sep 2019).

Brogger W. C. &  Rolfsen N. Fridtiof Nansen 1861-1893, translated by W. Archer. London, 1896.

Daily Telegraph, 9 June, 1873.

Gutiérrez J. & Rodríguez M.F. The Atlantic,, Watching Venezuela’s Last Glaciers disappear. 15 Jan 2019. link

Hathi Trust, The Perkins library. A catalogue of the very valuable and important … Perkins, Henry, 1778-1855. link 

Pelto M, Glaciologist, Professor Nichols College, humboldt-glacier-retreat-greenland, From a Glaciers Perspective. 4 September, 2010. link

Scott R.F, The Voyage of the ‘Discovery’. 2 vols. London, 1905.

Schrodt. F., Santos M. J., Bailey J. J., & Field R. ‘Challenges and opportunities for biogeography—What can we still learn from von Humboldt?’, Journal of Biogeography, June, 2019.  link

Cox, K. Sidetracks in History, Perkins Family. November, 2019. link

Taylor G. Antarctic Adventure and Research. London, 1930.

Visit Berlin, 250 Anniversary Alexander von Humboldt.

Wulf A. The Invention of Nature. London, 2015.



Association for Public Art, Alexander von Humboldt (1871). link

Atlas Obscura,, places, Mexico City, Mexico, Alexander Von Humboldt Monument. link

Bachrach J., Statue Stories Chicago,, Alexander Von Humboldt, Humboldt Park. link

Hathi Trust,, The Perkins library. A catalogue of the very valuable and important … Perkins, Henry, 1778-1855. link

Marcus I, Berlin Spectator,, Alexander von Humboldt: Scholar, Explorer and Berliner. link

Pelto M., Glaciologist, Professor Nichols College, humboldt-glacier-retreat-greenland, From a Glaciers Perspective, 4 September, 2010. link,, history, The Pioneering Maps of Alexander von Humboldt. link


FURTHER READING Alexander von Humboldt information online. link

HiN – Alexander von Humboldt online. ‘HiN publishes current research on Alexander von Humboldt in German, English, Spanish and French. The bi-annual periodical is a publication by the University of Potsdam and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences’. link

Portal Alexander von Humboldt. ‘A virtual research environment on the works of Alexander von Humboldt. A project by the University of Applied Sciences Offenburg and University of Kansas’. link



Go top