Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

The Cost

On 3 June 1858 Frederick McCoy, having already approached the Science Board, applied to the Chief Secretary for £300 for the 'immediate commencement of the publication of the Natural History Memoirs and Reports.'1 So began a 39-year project which would define McCoy's career.

A short time later, however, McCoy was already asking for more money - a further £100 - and this would not be the last time he ran over budget. McCoy was constantly writing to fend off debtors or begging the Government for more money; a situation that came to define the project's financial journey until its abrupt and controversial end.

While Decade Twenty was the last to be published (in 1890), a further 84 plates were printed over the next seven years. McCoy passionately continued to source funds for the project, at times even digging into his own pockets.

Unfortunately passion was not enough to deflect his detractors. On 11 June 1897, 39 years after first seeking funds to begin the project, McCoy wrote to artist John James Wild, then working on what became the last plate: the work had to stop, as the Government had suspended all accounts.

The Government accused McCoy of profiteering when they discovered he had submitted an invoice for a plate description without having supplied it to the printing office. With money tight in the midst of the 1890s depression, it was a legitimate excuse to finally reign him in for good.

Constantly plagued by the issue of cost, the Prodromus project's expense should be weighed against the historical insight these magnificent illustrations and their descriptions give us; into museum practice, the scientific and creative community and the biological health of colonial Victoria.

Prodomus of Zoology: a costly endeavour.


1McCoy to The Honourable Chief Secretary, Museum Victoria Archives, National Science Museum Outward Letter Volume 1, May 1857-September 1861, Entry Page No. 81 58/55.