Books

The Biodiversity of the World Captured in Five Centuries of Animal Art

Charlotte Sleigh’s book The Paper Zoo explores 500 years of scientific animal illustration as seen in the collections of the British Library.

“Bengal tiger,” watercolor by a Calcutta artist (1820) (Hastings Albums, courtesy British Library)

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 Art by 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.

Cover of The Paper Zoo (courtesy University of Chicago Press)

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.

Pages from The Paper Zoo (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Pages from The Paper Zoo (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“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.

Johannes Jonstonus, Historiae naturalis de insectis (Frankfurt am Main, 1650–30), illustrations by Matthäus Merian. From The Paper Zoo: “The engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian the elder was the father of Maria Sybilla Merian, although he died when she was very young. He was apparently less committed to life-drawing than his daughter, producing visual descriptions of no fewer than eight separate species of unicorn.” (courtesy the British Library)
“Purple-bellied Lory (Lorius hypoinochrous),” original watercolor, later engraved as plate 170 in George Edwards, A Natural History of Uncommon Birds, and of Some Other Rare and Undescribed Animals (London, 1743–51) (courtesy the British Library)
“Horned frog,” from George Shaw, The Naturalist’s Miscellany (London, 1789–1813). The original text with the picture asked: “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.” (courtesy British Library)
“King penguin,” from George Shaw, Musei Leveriani explicatio Anglica et Latina (containing select specimens from the museum of the late Sir Ashton Lever, Kt., with descriptions in Latin and English) (London, 1792) (courtesy British Library)
“1. The four horned Ram, 2. Horns of the Iceland Sheep, 3. Horns of the Cretan Sheep,” from Ebenezer Sibly, An Universal System of Natural History Including the Natural History of Man, etc. (London, 1794–1807) (courtesy British Library)
“Red-bellied snake,” from George Shaw, Zoology of New Holland, the first book of Australian animals (London, 1794) (courtesy British Library)
“Ring-tailed lemur,” from George Edwards, A Natural History of Uncommon Birds, and of Some Other Rare and Undescribed Animals (London, 1743–51). From The Paper Zoo: “This picture summons up the myth of the Fall: the contemplated fruit, the lurking partner, the curling, striped, snake-like tail. There is even a banished creature disappearing off stage-left. Edwards kept a ‘Maucauco’ (as the lemur was also known) alive for a while in his home, finding it a ‘very innocent, harmless Creature, having nothing of the Cunning or Malice of the Monkey-Kind.’” (courtesy the British Library)
“Octopus,” from George Shaw, The Naturalist’s Miscellany (London, 1789–1813). From The Paper Zoo: “The ocean is understandably a source of terror, and tales of giant squid or octopuses are one way of making such fears manifest. In 1802, the French naturalist Pierre Denys de Montfort posited the existence of two such species. This example from a British book of the same era is truly the stuff of nightmares, coyly curled onto the page, but threatening to escape.” (courtesy the British Library)
“Koalas,” watercolor by unknown artist, inscribed on the back, “Coola, an animal of the opossum tribe from New South Wales,” from the Marquess Wellesley Collection of Natural History Drawings. From The Paper Zoo: “A report in the Philosophical Transactions of 1808 announced a new creature, seen a few years previously and known locally as a koala wombat. ‘The ears are short, erect, and pointed; the eyes generally ruminating, sometimes fiery and menacing; it bears no small resemblance to the bear in the fore-part of its body.’” (courtesy the British Library)
“Young Sumatran tapir,” probably by J. Briois (March 1824), gouache on paper, from an album of 51 drawings of birds and animals made at Bencoolen, Sumatra, for Sir Stamford Raffles. Raffles helped establish the Zoological Society of London and its Zoological Gardens (now London Zoo). (courtesy the British Library)
“Crab (‘Cancer dentatus’),” published in “Observations on the Genus Cancer of Dr. Leach with Descriptions of three new species” by Thomas Bell, from Transactions of the Zoological Society (London, 1835). From The Paper Zoo: “Bell devoted his life to some of nature’s less glamorous creatures, amongst them the Crustacea. In his History of the British Stalk-Eyed Crustacea, he lamented that most works of natural history lacked all but the most superficial coverage of the class. This beautifully textured illustration of an exotic species helps to remedy that situation.” (courtesy the British Library)
“Red-pied cock,” from Robert Fulton, The Illustrated Book of Pigeons (London, 1874–76). Darwin once stated that the pouter “has a much elongated body, wings, and legs; and its enormously developed crop, which it glories in inflating, may well excite astonishment and even laughter.” (courtesy the British Library)
“Dodo (‘Didus’),” from Richard Owen, Memoir of the Dodo (London, 1866). From The Paper Zoo: “Founder of the Natural History Museum (as it is known today), Owen used underhand means to make sure that he acquired the first complete dodo remains to be recovered after the bird’s extinction at the end of the seventeenth century. His Memoir came out the following year, featuring this illustration of a squat, ridiculous bird – not unlike Tenniel’s illustration of 1865 for Alice in Wonderland.” (courtesy the British Library)
“The Wild Boar,” drawing by Friedrich Specht for No. 4 in Cassell’s Natural History Wall Sheets (late 19th century) (courtesy the British Library)

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.

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