Vladimir Nabokov’s Colour Plate 55: an evolving mimetic power

The famous writer and lepidopterist would spend up to 14 hours a day studying and drawing butterfly patterns in the 1940s

The butterfly effect …

Once read, no one ever forgets Nabokov’s novel Lolita and its paedophile antihero. In one of the stranger examples of a double life, its author is also the world’s most famous lepidopterist.

Winging it …

Nabokov’s love of butterflies began as a five-year-old in knickerbockers at his family’s country house in Russia. When his father was made a political prisoner, the eight-year-old Vladimir gifted him a butterfly when he visited his jail cell. His passion continued alongside the writing of nine published novels in Russian and a further nine in English, penned on the kind of notecards he’d originally used for butterfly studies.

Drive time …

Although Nabokov never learned to drive, while he was writing Lolita he took long trips into the American west hunting butterflies. With his wife Véra at the wheel, the couple covered hundreds of thousands of miles.

All in a day’s work …

He was no mere hobbyist. As a research fellow at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology in the 1940s, he spent up to 14 hours a day creating thousands of drawings of wings and genitalia, through which he traced species’ evolution and marvelled at their mimetic power. (This drawing from the 1960s shows undersurface wing patterns.)

Time will tell …

His own shape-shifting journey as a writer, from Russia to Europe and then the United States, echoes his more radical theories about blue butterflies. He believed their changing appearance was the result of previously unsuspected migration across continents, from Asia to the New World, over millions of years. Although initially dismissed, his ideas have since been proved true through DNA testing.