Arts / History / Library

Mary Anning goes home

Guest post by Tom Sharpe, FGS, geological historian and author of ‘The Fossil Woman A Life of Mary Anning’ (2020). Additional content provided by the Geological Society’s Library team.

The Society’s portrait on display in the Mary Anning Comes Home exhibition at Lyme Regis Museum, May 2022

Dorset fossilist Mary Anning’s 223rd birthday was celebrated in style this year, with the unveiling of a statue of her in Lyme Regis on 21 May 2022 and the opening of a new display, Mary Anning Comes Home, at Lyme Regis Museum.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Society’s portrait of Mary Anning by Benjamin John Merifield Donne (1831-1928), which usually hangs in the entrance of our apartments in Burlington House.

Benjamin Donne was born in Clifton, Bristol but was brought up in Crewkerne in Somerset, and in 1841 he was sent to school in Lyme. He went on to become a painter mainly of mountain landscapes and coastal scenes and had several exhibitions in London in the 1880s.

Lyme Regis in the 1850s, from Henry Rowland Brown’s ‘The Beauties of Lyme Regis…’ 2nd ed (1858). GSL Library collection.

The pastel portrait of Mary Anning was drawn when Donne was just 19 years old. Although dated 1850, three years after Anning’s death on 9 March 1847, he would have been very familiar with her appearance as he was educated at George Roberts’ school in Broad Street, opposite her home and shop.

Donne’s portrait is clearly a copy of the earlier oil painting of February 1842 attributed to William Grey. He must have been given access to this earlier portrait which at that time belonged to Amelia Anning (c.1797–1858), the widow of Mary Anning’s brother Joseph who had died in 1849. This oil portrait remained with the Anning family until it was given to the Natural History Museum in 1935.

Detail of Donne’s portrait of Mary Anning showing an ammonite and an ichthyosaur skull beside the sleeping dog Tray

Drawn in a different medium, Donne’s portrait is crisper, clearer and brighter than the earlier portrait. Mary Anning appears slimmer and less stocky, despite her voluminous dress and cloak, her eyes bright blue, and looking younger than her years. A loose block of rock containing an ammonite has been added lying on the ground between Anning and her dog, Tray, and in the background, not only are Golden Cap and Thorncombe Beacon better defined, but the foreshore rock ledges where many of her specimens were collected are apparent. The spiral shell of an ammonite is also visible in the rocks behind Anning, below her basket.

The Mary Anning Memorial Window in St Michael’s Church, Lyme Regis which was paid for by Fellows of the Geological Society in 1850.

We have no record of who may have owned the picture or where it was between 1850 and 1875, but the date of 1850 hints at a possible connection with the Mary Anning Memorial Window which was installed in St Michael’s Church in Lyme Regis in that year. It may have been a commission by the Fellows of the Geological Society who contributed towards the cost of the window, and this was certainly the belief of Lyme historian Cyril Wanklyn in his obituary of Benjamin Donne in the Dorset County Chronicle in April 1928, but no proof of this has yet been found. In the 1920s, Wanklyn tracked down Donne, then in his nineties and living in Exmouth, but the artist had no recollection of the portrait.

The picture was presented to the Geological Society in 1875 by William Willoughby Cole (1807–1886), 3rd Earl of Enniskillen, a fossil collector who had purchased many specimens from Mary Anning. Like the other portrait, it had remained in Lyme since it was painted, as Enniskillen had arranged for James Marder (1824–1888), a Lyme chemist and fossilist, to send it to the Society.

Advertisement for the Marder fossil dealing business in Lyme Regis

James Wood Marder and his older brother Henry (c.1818–1869) were respectively a dispensing chemist and a surgeon in Lyme Regis, with a sideline in collecting, exhibiting and selling fossils. In 1832, a ‘young Marder’, probably fourteen year old Henry, is recorded as accompanying Mary Anning collecting fossils at Charmouth, and in 1839, Henry De la Beche mentions Lias fish in ‘Mr Marder’s’ collection. James and Henry may also have purchased some of the stock of Anning’s shop following her death in 1847.

As a collector and dealer, James Marder seems to have been the more active of the two brothers, providing ichthyosaurs to the Royal Dublin Society, fossil crustacea to Henry Woodward, fish to Sir Philip Egerton, and pterosaur material to Enniskillen which Richard Owen described in 1874 as Pterodactylus marderi.

Enniskillen clearly recognised that Anning was a significant figure in palaeontology of the day. In addition to acquiring the portrait for the Society in 1875, ten years later he purchased from Mary’s nephew, Albert Anning, a portfolio of her manuscripts, drawings and other papers which he sent to Richard Owen at the Natural History Museum. Some of these became mixed with Owen’s personal papers and were subsequently dispersed by his biographer, Charles Davies Sherborn, although some survive in the Library of the Natural History Museum.

In early 2022, the portrait was removed from its usual position in our Entrance Hall at Burlington House for preparatory conservation before its trip to Lyme. The drawing was in good condition but the frame had suffered some loss of its gilded plaster details due to the drying out of the wooden structure through age. The frame was restored by Arnold Wiggins & Sons, and the drawing carefully reframed by conservator Graeme Gardiner. Finally it was transported to Lyme in its own custom-built container by Crown Fine Art.

Donne’s portrait of Anning is attractively displayed in a tall case in the Geology Gallery of Lyme Regis Museum, a space which was completely refurbished in 2017 during a major redevelopment of the museum which included a new extension, the Mary Anning Wing. Adjacent is a cast of the famous ichthyosaur skull found by Joseph and Mary Anning in 1811–12, the original of which is in the Natural History Museum, and, close by, a bust of Mary Anning’s great friend and supporter William Buckland, and fossils on loan from Oxford University Museum of Natural History, collected by the Philpot sisters of Lyme Regis, Mary’s friends and fellow-collectors. The professional fossil collectors of today who follow in Anning’s footsteps are also represented by some spectacular and beautifully prepared recent discoveries, most notably a rare new Lias crocodylomorph which was found in 2017 on the beach at Stonebarrow to the east of Charmouth by Paul Turner and Lizzie Hingley, who have presented it to Lyme Regis Museum.

The museum also has on loan, from the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge, an ichthyosaur which Mary Anning sold to Adam Sedgwick. In a letter to Sedgwick on 20 May 1832, she described it as ‘the Ichthyosaurus communis, now in my possession, is the best yet discovered … price thirty five pounds’. Now identified as an example of Ichthyosaurus breviceps, it has returned to Lyme for the first time in 190 years.

Mary Anning Comes Home can be seen at Lyme Regis Museum, Bridge Street, Lyme Regis until the end of September 2022.


Tom Sharpe’s recent biography of Mary Anning, The Fossil Woman A Life of Mary Anning is published by The Dovecote Press in 2020 (hardback) and 2021 (paperback).

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