A Bengal tiger does not travel well, and especially didn’t in the centuries before sedation and airplanes. But 19th-century scientists in England could study its stripes from afar thanks to the international trade of art, long a vital medium for scientific understanding. The Paper Zoo: 500 Years of Animals in Artby science historian Charlotte Sleigh, out March 8 from the University of Chicago Press, is a lushly illustrated publication with 250 images from the British Library chronicling how scientific art has expressed biodiversity over the centuries.
It has not always been kind. Sleigh notes that the original text for an illustration of a horned frog in George Shaw’s The Naturalist’s Miscellany (1789–1813) read: “Should inquiry be made, which is the ugliest animal yet known to exist? The creature here represented might perhaps with justice be proposed as an answer: an animal of such prodigious deformity as even to exceed in this respect the Surinam toad, or Rana Pipa.”
Sleigh divides her book into four sections: exotic, native, domestic, and paradoxical. That last is particularly colorful, filled with anecdotes about completely imaginary creatures that were assembled due to mangled word-of-mouth descriptions, and sometimes supported by enterprising individuals. “Cashing in on the craze for natural-historical collections in the early modern period, canny sailors and inhabitants of far-flung lands stitched together body parts to make salable, ‘real’ monsters,” Sleigh writes. Along with unicorns and mermaids, there is the more fantastic and terrifying “manticore” in Edward Topsell’s 1658 The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents. The lion-like animal has the face of a man, with three rows of grinning teeth.
Sleigh explains that “animals began to appear in medieval works of art,” often as biblical Lambs of God or one of the symbols of the evangelists (an ox, lion, or eagle). As printing developed and became widespread, animals of varying accuracy flourished in books, whether in the form of early woodcuts or later engravings. A well-depicted exotic animal was the intellectual’s prize.
“Dürer mostly produced his animal images in watercolour, and such objects, like the pictures in the collection of the Lincei, were valuable items for exchange between wealthy savants around Europe,” Sleigh writes. “In Restoration London, a painting of a lizard on vellum could command higher prices than portraits in oil executed by even the most fashionable painters.”
Naturally, there were the overachievers, including John James Audubon, who put a vibrant, life-size aviary on paper with his 19th-century Birds of America. The Paper Zoo also has glimpses of incredible naturalist voyages like those of Maria Sibylla Merian, who in 1699 set out for South America to illustrate its insects, and Ernest Haeckel, who in the 19th century created detailed drawings of microscopic animals. They had a major influence on the fluid shapes of Art Nouveau.
High-speed and high-definition photography eventually took over as a way of visually capturing wildlife in the 21st century. Still, some extinct animals like the dodo or great auk mainly survive through old illustrations. Often, though, the creator’s name is lost. “Artists are not always acknowledged — and there is even more rarely a sound grasp of the different roles played by drawers, engraves, and colourists,” Sleigh states. Below are selections from The Paper Zoo, recalling the sometimes anonymous artist’s role in five centuries of shared scientific knowledge.
Charlotte Sleigh’s The Paper Zoo: 500 Years of Animals in Art is published by the University of Chicago Press and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.