Animal Locomotion – ‘not one in twenty thousand would understand it’


Washington Teasdale’s microscopical tableau
Cyanotype 105 x 150 mm print.
Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford

Just before Christmas 1894, a Leeds resident felt moved to write to his local newspaper:

The Leeds Mercury
Saturday, December 22, 1894



Gentlemen, – I was pleased to see from a paragraph in the local papers that the Free Library Committee have secured a copy of that unique and valuable work, Muybridge’s “Animals in Motion” [sic], and cannot help congratulating the committee on its acquisition, feeling assured that it will be highly valued and appreciated, not only by the many art students we now have in Leeds, but by natural history and other scientific students also. When, some time ago, I attended Mr. Muybridge’s explanatory lectures at the Royal Institution, London, I hoped we might some day have a copy of his life work in Leeds, and yet hardly expected it, as its necessarily high price placed it out of the reach of ordinary private purchasers, or even by any other library in Leeds…..
– Yours, &c., WASHINGTON TEASDALE. Headingley, December 21st.

Washington Teasdale (1831-1903), a well-known engineer and keen pioneer photographer was among those who, in 1892, had re-established the Leeds Astronomical Society, which had been dormant for some years. The quirky still life photograph shown here indicates an interest in microscopy, and whatever their function perhaps the lay figures became redundant when Teasdale gained access to Animal Locomotion. The print is a cyanotype, which was the process used by Muybridge for his proofs of the sequence photographs used to compile Animal Locomotion. Teasdale himself had perhaps been assembling photo-montages, if the framed picture of – diatoms? – is his own.

Early in the new year the newspaper reported positively on the purchase, which had been approved,  though there was some discontent:

The Leeds Mercury
Thursday, January 3, 1895

It is pleasant to record that the Leeds County Council, after a little grumbling, has approved the minutes of the Free Library Committee, including the purchase of Mr. Muybridge’s wonderful book on Animal Locomotion. This book, owing to its cost, is in the ordinary way available only to a very few, but by adding it to the reference Library the Committee has put it in the power of any citizen to examine the wonderful plates which seem to have attracted, not to say absorbed, the attention for some considerable time even of those members who offered the strongest opposition to the purchase of the work. At first blush it may seem startling that the Committee,  whcih is not usually kept very well in funds by the Council, should have spent £115 on one book, even though that book consists of eleven volumes. It would be wrong for the Committee to become bibliomaniacs, and give large sums for rare editions of works which could be purchased in cheaper form. But “Animal Locomotion” does not belong to this class. It is a unique collection of plates of the utmost value to artists and students of art, of whom fortunately we have a large number in our midst. Still, £115 is a large sum. No doubt there are some individuals both in and out of the Corporation who would contend that eleven volumes of equal size as beautifully bound might have been picked up at a much smaller cost. One worthy Alderman did go the length of urging that 500 books might have been purchased with the money. But the committee is not concerned only with filling the spaces on the library shelves […..]

Within a couple of days a more detailed report of the dissent was published. Those against were led into the fray by Mr. Battle, and those defending placed their faith in Alderman Spark to illuminate their argument:

The Leeds Mercury
Saturday, January 5, 1895

The economists of the Leeds City Council were in force at the meeting on Wednesday; but the open-handed members were too many for the advocates of thrift. The first attack was led by Mr. Battle against the Free Library Committee for having expended on one book, the remarkable work in several volumes by Mr. Muybridge, on “Animal Locomotion,” the large sum of £115, for which Sir Edwin Gaunt said they could have got 500 books that would have been used ten times as much as this costly tome. Mr. Battle was positive that not one person in ten thousand would see the book, and not one in twenty thousand would understand it when they did. Now, however, that such prominence has been given to the matter, Mr. Battle’s prediction is likely to be falsified. [sic] Ald. Spark defended the purchase on the ground of the technical importance of the work to the artist and the student; besides, time would serve to augment its value. Apart from the animated discussion, £115 does seem a big price to give for a single volume [sic]; but it must not be forgotten that it consists of a large number of carefully prepared plates, which must have involved a heavy outlay; and it is a safe surmise to make that the author has not profited largely by his great undertaking.

To get some idea of the value of £115 in 1895, the following paragraph from the same column may help:

Another matter which roused opposition was a proposal by Mr. Ringrose that the wages of tram-car conductors should be 4 1/2d per hour after four months’ service…..The proposer held that no man should work for less than 25s. per week of 48 hours….

So 25 shillings (at twenty shilling to the pound) was considered a fair weekly wage for a working man. At that rate, the cost of Animal Locomotion was approaching two years’ wages.

Current annual salary for a bus conductor (equivalent job) in London (I don’t have info for Leeds) is £15,000. That would make the comparative cost of Animal Locomotion, at today’s prices based on that salary, something approaching thirty thousand pounds.

But apart from Washington Teasdale, there were others who considered the money well spent:

The Leeds Mercury
Saturday, January 12, 1895



Gentlemen, – referring to the discussion at the meeting of the Free Library Committee yesterday, in which the purchase of Mr. Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion” was severely commented upon, I beg to say that since the book came in I have had three separate occasions to refer to it, and each time I have found and made tracings of what I wanted. I think the book supplies a widely felt need to all connected in any way with designing.
– Yours, &c., A.L. KNIGHT. 30, Basinghall-street, Leeds, January 11th.

The further discussion mentioned by Mr. Knight was reported in more detail in the same issue:

The Leeds Mercury
Saturday, January 12, 1895


At a meeting of the Leeds Free Library Committee, held on Thursday, a discussion, initiated by Mr. Joseph Henry, took place with reference to the purchase of Professor Muybridge’s work on “Animal Locomotion” at a cost of £115. Mr. Henry contended that no sub-committee ought to spend so large a sum on a single work without authority. He moved a resolution providing that no sub-committee or deputation be permitted to buy any single work at a cost exceeding £20 without first obbtaining the sanction of the General Committee. Ald. Sir Edwin Gaunt, Mr. Batley, and other members of the committee supported the motion. The Chairman remarked that this was an entirely new departure. No deputation appointed by the committee had previously been restricted in the exercise of its judgement, and he intimated that if the resolution were adopted, it would be for any future deputation to consider whether they would accept the position on such terms. Ald. Spark’s views were supported by Mr. Tweedale and one or two other members. The resolution, however, was carried.

One specialist who was unimpressed with the claims for the work as valuable to artists gave a talk to the Photographic Society that Spring:

The Leeds Mercury
Saturday, April 6, 1895



Mr. Wm. Howgate delivered a lecture on “Fine Art and Photography” to members of this Society on Thursday, in their room in the Mechanics’ Insitution, Cookridge-street….. It was a mistake to suppose that the very expensive work of Professor Muybridge on “Animal Locomotion,” recently purchased by the Leeds Free Library Committee, could be of service to artists. The human eye was incapable of seeing the scientific date recorded by the camera. The true picture gave the impression of the poet-artist, who conveyed the sentiment of the subject without wasting time over petty details….

It would be interesting to know whether similar rows took place elsewhere, as there were quite a few institutions in Britain, Europe, and the United States that purchased the full set, and no doubt many more that made do with a 100-plate selection.