James W. Neville, Microscopist (1840 – 1900)

Brian Stevenson and Howard Lynk, USA



James Neville’s microscope slides are distinctively styled, and easily recognized by the ornate patterns he applied to ringing cement. Neville was a professional japanner (lacquer painter), and his artistic abilities obviously extended to many aspects of his life. Figure 1 illustrates examples of Neville’s handiwork, ranging from simple to ornate. It is rare to find two slides on which he used the identical pattern and color combination.

Figure 1. Examples of microscope slides produced by James Neville. The fourth slide from the left, top row, is ringed in a simple pattern, but can be identified as being by Neville from his handwriting on the label. The seventh slide from the left, top row, used blue-tinted glass.

James White Neville was born in Birmingham, England, during mid-summer, 1840, the third child of Charles and Judith Neville. Father Charles was recorded on the 1841 census as being an artist, although James’ marriage record described Charles as having been an optician. Between 1841 and 1849, the family moved to Wolverhampton, Staffordshire. Charles died in 1849, leaving Judith to care for James, two brothers and two sisters. The 1851 census records Judith as working as a confectioner. The family’s economic situation at that time must have been reasonably decent, as they employed a live-in general servant.

By the time of the 1861 census, James was working as a japanner. He and most of his family lived together in Aston, Warwickshire. Mother Judith did not report being employed. Younger brother William worked as an optician. A third sister appeared on this census, Helen, aged 5.

James married Margaret Neill in 1866, at the Parish Church of Handsworth, Staffordshire. The couple then moved in with Margaret’s mother, Hannah, in Birmingham. Hannah was a pawnbroker, an occupation also attributed to Margaret on the 1851 census. Hannah was recorded as being married, but her husband does not appear with the family on any census. Margaret was born in Dublin, Ireland, so it is possible that her father was still in that country, or travelling. James and Margaret had seven children over the next decade.

Neville mentioned in an 1883 article that he had made slides using a particular method seven years ago, indicating that he was seriously involved with microscopy by 1876. The earliest detailed record we found of James Neville’s interest in microscopy were two 1878 exchange advertisements in Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip (Figure 2). He did not advertise in earlier issues of this magazine, suggesting that had only recently achieved the competence to produce high quality slides and the confidence to exchange them with strangers. The descriptions he used for his slides, “well-mounted” and “neatly-finished”, may indicate that he was already painting his slides with ornate ringing. As a caveat, though, these were common phrases used by other slide makers to describe their work, and may simply mean that he produced good-quality slides.

Figure 2. Exchange offers from James Neville appearing during 1878 in “Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip”.

The following year brought requests to exchange for slides of a dissected water beetle and a whole-mounted spider. By 1880, Neville had joined the Birmingham Microscopists’ and Naturalists’ Union. For the next 11 years, The Midland Naturalist reported proceedings of the club’s meetings, including descriptions of specimens exhibited under their microscopes. James Neville was frequently noted as having exhibited microscopic, and macroscopic, objects to his club. A list of microscopic specimens reported to be shown by Neville at club functions may be found as Table 1, at the end of this essay. This is an abbreviated description of his output, as many were listed as large groups. For example, at the 1880 Annual Conversazione, Neville exhibited “150 slides of insects of the district”, and showed “100 slides of insects, mounted whole, and in dissected parts, also tongue of spider” at the 1882 Conversazione. Moreover, Neville continued to request slide exchanges for many years, so many of his works would have entered the collections of other microscopists throughout the country.

Figure 3. Four microscope slides whose label descriptions correspond with those known to have been exhibited by James Neville to the Birmingham Microscopists’ and Naturalists’ Union. Left to right (descriptions are verbatim from the “The Midland Naturalist”): Bicillaria ciliata and Catenicella margaritacea, Australian polyzoa (both shown Jan. 19, 1885); Section of Favosites forbesii, a fossil coral (Sept. 19, 1887); Parasite of tortoise (Oct. 26, 1891).

Neville served as President of the Birmingham Microscopists’ and Naturalists’ Union in 1884. The following year, he stepped down to become a Vice President. He also acted as the club’s Secretary for many years. Neville’s’ presidential retirement address, "The Offensive and Defensive Weapons of Insects," was summarized in The Midland Naturalist, and gives a good idea of James’ depth of knowledge: "remarking that as the subject was a wide one, he should only take that part of it that referred directly to ourselves. It might appear necessary to some to apologise for introducing into respectable company some of the insects to which he should have occasion to refer. But these would not be naturalists, for naturalists studied living objects as they were, whether they pleased the sentiments or no. The offensive weapons of the following insects were then referred to: Pediculus capitis, Nepa cinerea, Notonecta glauca, Cimex lectularius, and Pulex irritans. The peculiarities of their mouth organs were described and compared with a typical insect's mouth, that of the ground beetle, Carabus, when the remarkable departure from a probable original type was made apparent. In the latter part of the subject the sting of the wasp was described with its complicated mechanism of poison bag, duct with chitinous rings, pistons for ejecting poison, lancets, etc. The address concluded by regretting that the labours of microscopists were often of a desultory character, and pointing out the advantages of more special pursuits. The use of the various forms and ornamentation of pollen grains was suggested as good ground to be worked by microscopic botanists. The Entomostraca, Diatomaceae, and Desmidiaceae of the district were mentioned as fields of labour where good and useful work was required, and local catalogues much needed. The address was illustrated by diagrams.

Although he was an amateur microscopist, James Neville developed considerable skill as a slide mounter. He frequently lectured to his club and wrote articles on mounting techniques. On October 11, 1885, “Mr. J.W. Neville demonstrated the simplicity of preparing whole insects for microscopical investigation by describing and showing the processes they pass through. Several objects were prepared and mounted, and afterwards exhibited to the meeting”. On September 22, 1890, "Mr. J.W. Neville gave a short address on plant crystals and how to prepare them for the microscope. The speaker said there was no royal road to mounting, and it was impossible to mount a leaf to show its whole structure satisfactorily. In mounting crystals we generally lost other cell contents, and in trying to preserve the protoplasm of the cell we lost the crystals. The process recommended was to bleach the leaves in chlorinated soda, and when quite transparent mount in balsam through carbolic acid, and afterwards view with polarised light. A collection of slides mounted in this manner was shown under the microscope”. On July 13, 1891 he “gave a demonstration of the use of carbolic acid in microscopic mounting. This is a medium through which objects can be passed directly from water into Canada balsam. Its use was particularly advantageous for objects that shrunk and cracked in drying, and also for those that were difficult to rid of air, and it was perhaps the most simple of the ‘wet methods’. A number of objects were then mounted to show the process, a minute or two sufficing to transfer them from water into balsam”.

In 1883, he wrote to The Midland Naturalist: “Many of the readers of the ‘Midland Naturalist’ will learn with pleasure that there is such a ready way of mounting vegetable preparations as that mentioned by Mr. Bagnall in the July number, as the invention of Professor Hillhouse of the Mason College. The process is very simple, and the medium excellent; but from practical experience I would suggest the sealing of the cover-glass with pale copal varnish, instead of dilute balsam; it can be obtained of as light a colour, is much tougher, and not likely to get so brittle as that medium. As regards the newness of the invention, I can only say I have preparations by me that have been put up in this way for seven years or more, and several of my friends have used it as long a time, preferring it to glycerine jelly, as it does not show such a disposition to leak. Practical microscopists will, however, be glad to learn that after this space of time the objects show no signs of deterioration, but rather wear an improved appearance.

During 1886, Neville published in Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip on “Wilks' Cell”. This invention, by George Wilks of Manchester, was a grooved lead ring to be used as a spacer between a slide and coverslip, for mounting large objects. The soft lead could be compressed to reduce the depth, if necessary. “It is somewhat difficult to give R.S.P. the information he seeks on the manner of using the Wilks' cell, without first knowing how advanced he may be in the preparation of objects without pressure. It requires a considerable amount of care to get the objects ready for the cell, but when this is done the mounting of them is the easiest part. If R.S.P. refers only to this latter part, he will find no difficulty if he proceeds as follows. Take a cell and see that it is no deeper than the object requires. If it is too deep it can easily be flattened between two pieces of glass by pressure, until the exact depth is gained. All that remains then to be done is to place it on a clean slip, fill it with thick balsam, and, immersing the prepared object, put on the cover glass. In using the thick balsam, numerous air bubbles will most likely appear in the cell. This is a small matter, for if kept in a warm place they will gradually work to the edge and disappear. If R.S.P. wishes for anything like full information on the preparation of objects for the cell, I fear it cannot be given without devoting at least one article to the subject. The Wilks' cell is a very useful introduction, and deserves to be largely used. Prior to its invention I have frequently extemporised one from a vulcanite cell, that sufficiently answered the purpose, although at the cost of time and trouble. Still I think the cell is open to improvement, and would suggest that it had at least twice the number of elevations, or, perhaps better still, was corrugated, as in its present form the cover glass is likely to get broken unless well banked up with edging colour, as there is so large a space between the supports.” Neville was also familiar with Wilks’ microscope slides, and on February 23, 1885, displayed “twelve botanical sections, double stained, prepared by Mr. G. Wilkes (sic)” to his microscopy club.

In addition to microscopical preparations, James Neville exhibited a wide variety of natural objects at meetings of the Birmingham Naturalists’ and Microscopists’ Union. On December 17, 1888, he showed the skin of a large Australian snake. This is probably the same specimen he advertised for exchange the following year “Offered, skin of snake, ten feet long. Wanted, exotic insects or offers”. He is also recorded as having exhibited tropical land shells, fossils in limestone, ammonites, “leaves of Spircea Ulmaria infested with brand”, and “a pansy with six petals, an abnormal growth that has been continued on all off-sets for several years”. Neville read several papers to the club, including “Peeps into Ponds” on Sept. 30, 1895, and “Protective Devices of Larvae” on June 26, 1899. Two other well-known microscopists also presented to the club during those years: Herbert Darlaston spoke on “Marvels of Insect Life” in 1895, and Richard Hancock delivered “A Short Review of Astronomy during the Century” in 1899. Brian Bracegirdle reported that Darlaston developed his skills as a microscope slide maker through instruction by James Neville.

On November 17, 1890, at the Union’s Annual Public Exhibition, Neville exhibited “a frame of lantern slides, illustrating the ‘Wonders of a Pond’”. These may have been his own productions. In 1895, he published a small book, The Photographic Colourist: “a manual for the use of amateurs: giving every particular required for painting lantern slides and other transparencies, colouring diagrams, preparing lantern slides without the aid of photography, blacking out backgrounds, scratching in details, tinting paper prints, colouring paper prints to imitate oil paintings, crystoleum painting etc. etc.

James Neville’s artistry extended well beyond decorating microscope and lantern slides. One of his descendants, Faith Blancquiere, provided us with pictures of a painting and two decorated silk cushions made by Neville (Figure 4). Undoubtedly, many examples of his decorations of furniture, etc. remain, although it is very likely that they were unsigned and remain anonymous.

Figure 4. Artworks by James Neville. Top, framed painting. Bottom, two painted silk cushion covers. Photographs provided by Faith Blancquiere.

James White Neville died at the age of 59 on June 14, 1900, at his home on Wellington Road, Handsworth. The cause of death was recorded as “Malignant Sarcoma, Pulmonary Haemorrhage, Syncope”. There is a strong possibility that his cancer was brought on by a lifetime of inhaling fumes from the chemicals he used as a japanner. It is ironic to think that each of his elaborately-decorated microscope slides may have contributed to their maker’s early death.

Figure 5. Photograph of James White Neville, provided by Faith Blancquiere.

Table 1. Microscopical preparations exhibited by James W. Neville at meetings of the Birmingham Microscopists’ and Naturalists’ Union, between 1881 and 1891. Neville was a sub-editor for The Midland Naturalist during that time period, and regularly reported items displayed at meetings of his society. This list describes only some of Neville’s slides shown at club functions, as many were exhibited in large groups that were not individually identified. He also traded extensively with other naturalists, and so undoubtedly made many more slides than were exhibited at the club. Nonetheless, this list shows the breadth to Neville’s interests in natural history, with specimens of all sorts of animals, plants and minerals being represented. Descriptions in the table are paraphrased from the published descriptions.


Antennum of butterflies and moths

March 16, 1891


November 9, 1891

Aregma bulborum

August 31, 1885

Aregma bulbosa

May 26, 1884

Aregma obtusatum

June 23, 1884

Arran pitchstone, section

February 20, 1888

Astromyelon and particular woody tissue, from coal measures

June 12, 1882

Australian sundew, leaf with captive insects

June 18, 1886

Australian tettigoinia larvae, found on the eucalyptus tree

June 21, 1886

Batachospermum, from Keeper’s Pool

March 18, 1881

Bicellaria ciliata, Australian polyzoa

January 19, 1885

Bladderwort, Utricularia vulgaris

July 14, 1884

Bombyx mori larva, mounted whole, showing tracheal system complete

September 5, 1881

Bombyx mori larva, showing two rows of hooklets in each leg

October 2, 1881

Bombyx pernyi, antenna

November 30, 1885

Brittle starfish, Ophiocoma neglecta

August 17, 1885

Butterfly wing, Morpho cypris

June 15, 1885

Butterfly wing, Orthoptera rhadamanthus

March 10, 1884

Calamite stem

April 25, 1881

Calamites, fossil, transverse section

December 15, 1884

Carchesium polypinum

March 23, 1885

Catenicella auritia, an Australian zoophyte

October 26, 1885

Catenicella margaritacea, Australian polyzoa

January 19, 1885

Cement-stein from Isle of Fur, Denmark, showing Trinaeria excavata and other diatoms in situ

February 15, 1886

Chaleis minuta, from Turkey

November 29, 1886

Cherry-gall” flies, Cynips quercus folii, male and female

August 18, 1884

Chiton cinercus, palate

September 15, 1884

Cluster Cup and Coleosporum on leaves of coltsfoot

September 19, 1881

Coal-ball section, showing a sporangium with spores in situ

December 20, 1886

Coal ball section, with transverse section of Rachiopteris oldhamium

November 16, 1885

Coal from Hamstead, fibrous, showing dotted vessels

December 9, 1889

Coal section showing excreta of insects deposited in the tissues of plants which they had eaten, probably while in the larval stage

December 12, 1881

Coal sections, showing fern sporangia with spores in situ

November 21, 1881

Coltsfoot leaf infested with micro-fungus (Coleosporum)

August 22, 1881

Comb-footed ichneumon fly, Ophion luteum

October 6, 1884

Cricket, chirping file and drum

October 3, 1887

Cuttle fish bone, section

November 23, 1885

Deutzia corymbosa, leaf

June 25, 1888

Deutzia scabra, leaf

June 25, 1888

Diatomaceae, from deposit in Black Root pool, Sutton Park

November 3, 1884

Dog rose, section through a prickle

June 30, 1884

Doris flammea, palate

September 22, 1884

Dragon-fly (Agrion), jaws

July 10, 1882

Dredgings from “Challenger” Expedition

January 8, 1883

Dredgings from Indian Ocean

January 28, 1884

Drone Fly proboscis

September 25, 1882

Drosera rotundiflora leaf, with captured insects

May 19, 1884

Dytiscus marginalis, alimentary canal

July 28, 1884

Dytiscus marginalis, elytra

April 20, 1891

Emperor Moth larva skin, which had been pierced by Ichneumon Fly

June 26, 1882

Euplectella aspergillum, spicules

October 18, 1886

Favosites forbesii, a fossil coral, section

September 19, 1887

Ferns, fossil, from Albion

October 20, 1884

Fern fructification, fossil in a section of coal-ball material

September 10, 1888

Fern, Rachiopteris cylindrica, stem, transverse section

November 21, 1881

Flea, common, gizzard

August 25, 1883

Flea, common, lancet

August 25, 1883

Flea, common, stomach

March 27, 1882

Flint, section showing Xanthidia

August 21, 1882

Floral organs, sections, showing all the parts in situ

January 5, 1891

Flustra episcopalis, from New Zealand

January 26, 1885

Foraminifera, dredged off the coast of Galway

January 5, 1885

Foraminifera from Borth

July 6, 1891

Foraminifera from Jersey

March 5, 1888

Foraminifera etc., from chalk washings

November 9, 1885

Foraminifera from sponge sand, selected

May 2, 1887

Funaria hygrometrica, capsules

June 16, 1890

Fungus, paper mildew, Myxotrichum chartarum

March 31, 1884

Fusus islandicus, palate

November 17, 1884

Fusus islandicus, palate

October 24, 1887

Gamasus coleoptratorum from humble bee

June 7, 1886

Gorgonia from Australia, spicules

April 4, 1887

Grasshopper, auditory organs

September 5, 1887

Gyrinus natator, double eyes

October 24, 1881

Haliotis tuberculata, lingual ribbon

December 4, 1881

Hedge Maple, transverse section

September 18, 1882

Helices, jaws, series on a single slide mounted for comparison

February 21, 1887

Heliolites interstinetus, section

May 18, 1885

Honey bee, antenna comb

April 12, 1886

Horned aphis, Cerataphis lataniae

February 25, 1884

House fly, Musca domestica, teeth

August 11, 1884

House spider dissections, showing falces, tongue, &c.

February 6, 1882

Human colon, transverse section

April 24, 1882

Human lung

April 24, 1882

Hydrodictyon utriculatum, water net

August 15, 1887

Hydrodictyon utriculatum, in four stages of growth

March 17, 1890

Ilispa atra, a spiny beetle from Turkey

August 23, 1886

Leaf crystals, treated with chlorinated soda, mounted in balsam/carbolic acid, various

September 22, 1890

Lecythea on leaves of barren strawberry

August 25, 1883

Lecythea and Aregma on leaf of barren strawberry

September 19, 1881

Lecythea or rust on leaf of rose

September 19, 1881

Lepidodendron bark

April 25, 1881

Lepidopterous larvae, 12 slides

September 2, 1889

Maize, annular vessels

June 8, 1891

Marchantia, spores and elaters

July 18, 1881

Megalicthys, head plate, from Lancashire coal beds

June 6, 1884

Melicerta ringens

June 15, 1891

Membranipora membranacea, a polyzoan from New Zealand

January 12, 1885

Mica, showing dendritic crystals of manganese

April 4, 1881

Mole cricket gizzard

March 1, 1886

Mosquito, mouth organs

May 4, 1885

Moss fruits

January 4, 1886

Nassa reticulata, palate

April 27, 1885

Nitella translucens

May 23, 1881

Oak Apple fly, Cynips terminalis

February 9, 1885

Oak Spangle fly, Cynips longipennis

May 5, 1884

Octopus palate

June 29, 1885

Ocypus olenus beetle, mouth organs

September 2, 1889

Oidium moniliodes, on leaves of grass

August 25, 1883

Ophiocoma neglecta

May 12, 1884

Orgyia pudibunda, larva, mounted whole, popularly known as the Hop Dog

February 2, 1885

Oysters, young shells

March 7, 1881

Parasite of Limax flavus

July 30, 1888

Parasite of tortoise

October 26, 1891

Pediculus capitis, tracheal system

November 26, 1888

Pelopaeus fistularis, a mason-wasp from Constantinople, mouth organs

January 17, 1887

Permian marl, with fern impressions

December 22, 1884

Phlota plumosa

June 26, 1882

Phragmidium obtusum on leaves of barren strawberry

August 25, 1883

Pinguicula vulgaris leaf, with insects

September 7, 1885

Piniperda larva

August 11, 1883

Plant bug, Tingis, from Turkey

September 20, 1886

Plant bug, Tingis, from Turkey

October 15, 1888

Plocamium coccineum in fruit

April 3, 1882

Polyxenes lagurus

April 19, 1886

Puccinia on leaf of violet

September 19, 1881

Pulex irritans, striated muscles

February 7, 1887

Ranunculus repens leaf, showing aecidium in situ

June 18, 1883

Ruby sand with fluid cavities, from New Zealand

July 27, 1885

Sea mouse, hair

May 1, 1882

Shells from the Gulf of Aden

April 13, 1891

Sirex gigas, ovipositor

July 27, 1891

Sheep tick, Ixodes reduvius

December 7, 1885

Snake’s head coralline (Anguinaria spathulata)

February 4, 1884

Sugar-cane, transverse section

November 28, 1881

Synapta adherens, skin, showing anchors and plates in situ

February 20, 1882

Testacella haliotidea, palate

April 18, 1887

Trachea, from larva of drinker moth

July 21, 1884

Trochus, palate

September 4, 1882

Trochus, shell

September 4, 1882

Volvox globator

April 20, 1885

Wasp, mouth organs, mounted without pressure

March 9, 1885

Wasp queen, mouth organs

March 23, 1891

Water spider, tongue

October 17, 1881

Worm-eaten glass, from an old Warwickshire church

July 2, 1883

Yoredale limestone, section, with goniatites in situ

September 29, 1884

Zonites draparnaldi, palate

January 3, 1887


Comments to the authors will be welcomed.


We thank Faith Blancquiere for her generosity in providing information on James Neville and pictures of him and his work. It was a pleasure to assist her with new information on her ancestors. We also thank Maureen Carter for providing information on Neville and his associates at the Birmingham Naturalists’ and Microscopists’ Union.


Bracegirdle, Brian (1998) Microscopical Mounts and Mounters, Quekett Microscopical Club, London.

Death record of James White Neville.

English census, birth, marriage, and death records, accessed through www.ancestry.co.uk

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, vol. 14 (1878), Exchanges column, pages 168 and 216.

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, vol. 15 (1879), Exchanges column, pages 168 and 264.

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, vol. 19 (1883), Exchanges column, page 264.

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, vol. 24 (1888), Exchanges column, page 120.

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, vol. 25 (1889), Exchanges column, page 168.

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, vol. 27 (1891), Exchanges column, page 192.

Kelly, E.R. (1879) Post Office Directory for Birmingham, with it Suburbs, page 245.

The Midland Naturalist, vols. 3-14 (1880-1891) Birmingham Naturalists’ and Microscopists’ Union proceedings, numerous pages. Details of specimens exhibited by Neville and other club members.

The Midland Naturalist, vol. 7 (1884) Birmingham Naturalists’ and Microscopists’ Union, page 852.

The Midland Naturalist, vol. 8 (1885) Our sub-editors, page 28.

Neville, James W. (1883) New methods of mounting for the microscope, The Midland Naturalist, vol. 6, page 190.

Neville, James W. (1885) Crystals for the polariscope, Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, vol. 21, page 115.

Neville, James W. (1885) Abegma bulbosum, The Midland Naturalist, vol. 8, page 297.

Neville, James W. (1886) Wilks’ cell, Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, vol. 22, page 233.

Neville, James W. (1895) The Photographic Colourist, Iliffe and Son, London.

Yearbook of the Scientific and Learned Societies of Great Britain and Ireland (1884) The Birmingham Naturalists’ and Microscopists’ Union, page 71.

Yearbook of the Scientific and Learned Societies of Great Britain and Ireland (1895) The Birmingham Naturalists’ and Microscopists’ Union, page 105.

Yearbook of the Scientific and Learned Societies of Great Britain and Ireland (1900) The Birmingham Naturalists’ and Microscopists’ Union, pages 116-117.


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