Since the earliest days of exploration, paintings and books have offered Britons their first glimpse of exotic creatures from faraway lands. Now, a collection of some of the most unusual images used to bring newly discovered animals into the public eye are to go on display at the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London.
‘Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals’ pulls together a range of artworks by people who had never seen exotic animals in the flesh. Highlights include a 16th-century copy of Dürer’s famous armoured rhinoceros; medieval accounts of exotic creatures; fake ‘dragon’ specimens created from dried fish by sailors, and 21st-century reconstructions of dinosaurs. Together they explore how unknown animals have, through history, been communicated to the wider public.
The exhibition centres upon George Stubbs’ famous painting of a kangaroo, which was created following Captain Cook’s first Pacific ‘Voyage of Discovery’, and is Europe’s first painting of an Australian animal.
UCL’s Dr Chiara Ambrosio, one of the 10 researchers who contributed to the exhibition, said: “Sometimes they were created from explorers’ written descriptions, while other artists copied existing drawings but added their own interpretations of those descriptions. It is fascinating to see a change in entire worldviews reflected in the way particular images changed over time.”
Exhibition curator, Jack Ashby, said: “It’s not only historic artworks which misportrayed these amazing species, but we also see it in the practice of taxidermy, where skins were shipped back to Europe and fleshed-out to recreate the animal based on a few notes. It’s also true of modern dinosaur toys, which have been copying outdated images of fossil species for over a century.
“It’s been such a fascinating exhibition to pull together – being able to work with a group of historians, artists and scientists from such a diverse set of disciplines has allowed us to tell so many stories about the topic of animal representations. It’s also very exciting to see these incredible objects, like Stubbs’ kangaroo, and Captain Cook’s handwritten voyage accounts, displayed alongside the Grant Museum’s animal specimens.”
A drawing of a lion by an unknown artist who had clearly never seen one. A Lion in a Landscape, Anonymous (Dutch), late 17th century. © UCL Art Museum, University College London.
The earliest European painting of an Australian animal. It was produced by George Stubbs, who had never seen a kangaroo, based on an inflated skin, skull, written descriptions and sketches. The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs, 1772. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
A 13th-century manuscript engraving of an elephant drawn in 1241 before the artist, Matthew Paris, had seen one. From Chronica Maiora, Matthew Paris (MS 16II, f. 152v). © The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
A knitted thylacine pelt. Tasmanian tigers were hunted to extinction in 1936 because of a powerful farming lobby. Artists like Ruth Marshall use the familiar, unchallenging practice of knitting to raise controversial issues like habitat loss and extinction. The movement is called craftivism. Tasmanian Tiger #3, Ruth Marshall, 2015. © Ruth Marshall.
A copy of Dürer's rhino, which was based on a written description. It has fantastical armour and a strange shoulder horn, and became an enduring image of rhinos for Europeans. A Rhinoceros, Enea Vico (after Albrecht Dürer), 1558. © UCL Art Museum, University College London.
An elephant from the same 13th-century manuscript as above (picture 4), drawn in 1255 after Matthew Paris had seen one in the Tower of London. From Chronica Maiora, Matthew Paris, 13th century (MS 16I, f.iir) Credit © the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
'Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals' will run at the Grant Museum of Zoology from 16 March to 27 June 2015. To find out more, click here.