In Antiquity, amidst the musings of Aristotle on the nature of Man and Man’s physical, intellectual and spiritual relationship with Nature, the study of Natural History was born and the interest in animals in particular moved beyond one solely of utility. The revival of classical thought, made possible by the Renaissance and the recovery of ancient texts by Aristotle, Ptolemy and so forth, renewed the desire to better understand the natural world. In Medieval Europe the sciences were studied predominately through texts rather than personal observation or experiment. As the Age of Discovery stretched further into unknown lands, so grew the availability of material obtained on those explorations, and collections expanded in a testament to individual and national power.
The growing understanding of the natural world played a pivotal role in the Scientific Revolution; specimens were acquired, conserved and catalogued with first hand observation and illustration providing the essential evidence required to establish facts for developing areas of scientific study. In the 17th century, learned societies such as the Royal Society were founded to stimulate debate and study of the newest discoveries. Cabinets of Curiosities, encyclopaedias of physical information, became popular as ‘gentleman scientists’ abounded. Collections for the sake of collecting, the cabinet reflected the collector’s particular research interests and recorded items yet without category at a time when myth was touching upon reality and science testing the limits of belief.
The 18th century saw a huge influx of natural history material into Europe and an increasing momentum in the shift away from religiously driven study that had tentatively begun in the Renaissance. From the late 18th century, taxonomy or categorisation was increasingly being refined as scientific pursuits crossed national borders. Learned societies eventually developed into professional bodies and many of the cabinets of curiosities, which reached their height in the 18th century, gave foundation to some of the world’s greatest museums; the cabinet of Sir Hans Sloane, the beginnings of the British Museum, being but one example.
Once representations of individual interest or royal dominion, collecting natural history increasingly became a valuable means by which to express a nation’s prowess in accumulating knowledge, a company’s access to trade or for an individual to become known, as it was for the young Charles Darwin. The appetite for new material and amateur study developed as the middle classes grew and the interest in the natural sciences ceased to be the reserve of the upper classes. As theories developed, the study of natural history expressed itself in competing narratives of religion, science and aesthetics from both the learned and the amateur.
At the same time as the interest in and access to natural history generally expanded, so too grew the availability of live specimens for both scientists and artists. Since Antiquity live animals had often found their way into noble collections as gifts from royal envoys, explorers and merchants to create bonds and curry favour. They were predominately an entertainment, and not the subject of any particular study.
In the early 13th century the Royal Menagerie was established at the Tower of London, and by the 16th century access given to the public with entry initially gained with a dead animal to supplement feedings, a practise that not surprisingly did not continue long. Private menageries were not unusual as long distance trade and travelling made faraway lands ever more accessible, and the first commercial menagerie was opened in 1793 at Exeter Exchange on the Strand.
In 1826 the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) was established by Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore. In 1830, after a series of mishaps mainly of animals escaping into each other’s enclosures to meet grisly ends, the remaining animals at the Royal Menagerie were transferred to the Society’s Vivarium. Conceived principally for research and education, some species at the Vivarium survived for decades even being breed successfully whilst others, regardless of conditions, perished in days. The ZSL opened its Zoological gardens to the public in 1847 in a bid to improve funding.
In 1852, the ZSL commissioned Joseph Wolf to provide illustrations of the many rare species it kept. Wolf, a much sought after natural history painter, had been particularly chosen by the society to fulfil its ambition to produce a record equal in artistry and accuracy. The ZSL particularly wanted representations as life-like as possible, perhaps reflecting the unease brought about by the fate of the Great Auk, a large flightless seabird found in the North Atlantic. Hunted nearly to extinction in the 18th century, the Auk was finally finished off by its own rarity as collectors competed desperately to have an example, the last breeding pair being shot in 1847 to fulfil such an order. At the time Wolf began his commission the survival of many breeds in the Zoological Gardens, such as the Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine, were of growing concern.
Wolf’s exacting detail coupled with a sense of otherworldliness and determination to capture the liveness of his subjects, marrying the best attributes of science and art, made him the most successful natural history painter of his generation. He was particularly admired for his treatment of his subject as distinct and individual rather than an exemplar of species or an extension of human sentiment, and although he placed his animals in dramatic, romanticised environments it was to emphasise a correlation to their habitat.
Wolf sympathies lay entirely with his animals and their world, one in which Man’s relationship with them and Nature was essentially irrelevant. Wolf’s sketches for the Zoological Society are perhaps his greatest achievement, elegantly expressing his belief that ‘We see distinctly only what we know thoroughly’.
S. A. Obolensky 2017
To see more highlights from our collection, please go to our website – https://prints.themaphouse.com/ – or visit us at The Map House, 54 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, SW3 1NY.