Stories from the Royal Society of Tasmania Art Collection
3. A curious note
Article prepared by the RST Honorary Curator, Dr Anita Hansen, for the April 2022 RST Newsletter.
A curious note
Back in 2014, when Margaret Davies and I were considering images and books for the Society’s Library at the End of the World at the Society’s library, we found a curious note in the unbound copy of John Gould’s The Mammals of Australia, Vol 1. It revealed, ‘Certain plates from this spare placed on loan to Tas Museum 1924. Mounted and on exhibition in Museum 1925.’
Among the missing images in the book were those of the Tasmanian Tiger, Tasmanian Devil and quolls.
A few years later, when Marley Large and I were researching the Society’s Art Collection we noticed that there was a set of prints from Gould’s The Mammals of Australia – Tasmanian Tiger, Tasmanian Devil and quolls at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. I recalled that ‘curious note’ from the library all those years ago, and we were able to confirm that they were indeed the same prints mentioned in the note and were part of the Society’s collection.
Very exciting! That image of the Thylacine is after all one of the most – if not the most – iconic images of the Tasmanian Tiger!
Happily the images came from an unbound book, and the plates can be returned to complete the volume.
But it made me begin to contemplate a few fascinating topics:
- the links between libraries and art galleries,
- the links between science and art,
- natural history art and how we view it.
Libraries and Art
Libraries often contain large collections of ‘works on paper’ as well as books and other ephemera. The Society’s library for example, also contains among other things; maps, journals, photographs, and official records. When the Society’s library was housed at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the artworks on paper were considered part of the library.
So the question is – what is art?
The Tasmanian Tiger print (a hand coloured lithograph) is a wonderful example of this dilemma. When the image is part of a book, it is an illustration – on a library bookshelf; but the very same image outside the book becomes an artwork – framed and hung in an art gallery.
The Links between Science and Art
The illustrations in John Gould’s The Mammals of Australia, while created to appeal to the lay viewer, were there primarily to describe the species in a quasi-scientific way.
Illustrations were often used to help readers imagine the new, unique fauna and flora of the antipodes – plants and animals that defied a purely written description or interpretation.
As the British botanist and collector Sir James Smith (1759–1828) pointed out in 1793, ‘When a botanist first enters … so remote a country as New Holland he finds himself in a new world. He can scarcely meet with any fixed points from whence to draw his analogies. Whole tribes of plants which first seem familiar … prove on nearer examination, total strangers, with other configurations, other economies, and other qualities; not only are the species that present themselves new, but most of the genera, and even the natural orders’.
This lack of suitable analogies Smith laments can be further demonstrated by the following written descriptions of a kangaroo given by Francois Pelsaert (believed to be the first description), Joseph Banks and James Cook.
Pelsaert wrote, ‘Besides we found in these islands large numbers of a species of cat, which are very strange creatures; they are about the size of a hare, their head resembling that of a civetcat; the forepaws are very short, about the length of a finger, on which the animal has five small nails or fingers, resembling those of a monkey’s forepaw. Its two hind legs, on the contrary, are upwards of half an ell in length [about half a metre], and it walks on these only, on the flat of the heavy part of the leg’.
Banks described the kangaroo thus, ‘To compare it to any European animal would be impossible as it has not the least resemblance of any one I have seen. Its fore legs are extremely short and of no use to it in walking, its hind again as disproportionately long; with these it hops 7 or 8 feet at each hop’.
And on 24 June 1770, James Cook recorded in his journal aboard the Endeavour, ‘I saw myself this morning, a little way from the ship, one of the Animals before spoke off [sic]: it was of a light mouse Colour and the full size of a Grey Hound, and shaped in every respect like one, with a long tail, which it carried like a Grey Hound; in short, I should have taken it for a wild dog but for its walking or running, in which it jump’d like a Hare or Deer. … In form, it is most like the gerbua’.
I doubt that anyone who has never seen a kangaroo (or image of one) could ever picture it from these descriptions. These metaphors demonstrate the value of images to introduce the newly discovered Tasmanian fauna and flora to the European scientists and public.
Natural History Art and How We View It
While the illustrations here are nearly always referred to as Gould’s, he was not the artist! The images were drawn by Henry Constantine Richter (1821–1907). Richter, a zoological illustrator and lithographer, came from a family of renowned artists and artisans.
After the death of John Gould’s wife Elizabeth in 1841, (she had previously illustrated Gould’s books), Richter was employed by Gould to work on The Birds of Australia, for which he produced the majority of the lithographs. Richter was responsible for all the plates in Gould’s A Monograph of the Macropodidae or Family of Kangaroos (1841–1842) and The Mammals of Australia (1863). Richter produced about 3000 lithographic plates and watercolours for Gould.
When we see an illustration like this, we believe it to be a true depiction of the scene in front of us – two thylacines in the Tasmanian landscape. However, Gould notes in his description of the Thylacine, ‘The circumstances of a fine pair, male and female, of the Thylacinus cynocephalus being now living in the Gardens of the Zoological Society Gardens in the Regent’s Park, enables me to give the best figure of the animal that has yet appeared …’
So while we have an image of these two Tigers surveying their natural surroundings, Richter actually drew two creatures caged at the zoo far from their home in Tasmania.
This superb illustration does nevertheless, show one of the few images drawn from life of a creature that is now tragically gone forever (?). Others in this set show more of Tasmanian’s wildlife that are in danger of disappearing forever as well.
There is a lithograph in the Society’s art collection by an artist identified only as KWN. I have not been able to identify this artist from any records I have access to. I’ve even tried going through the passenger lists of arrivals from around the time to no avail. Does anyone have any information that could help me identify KWN?
The Royal Society of Tasmania’s Art Collection is housed at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart.
Any queries, please contact the Honorary Curator, Dr Anita Hansen: firstname.lastname@example.org