Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Sometimes Unnatural History

The images below (background cleaned) are taken from the multi-volume natural history work, 'Getreue Abbildungen Naturhistorischer Gegenstände' (1795-1807), by Johann Matthäus Bechstein.

Do the watusi!


Common marmoset book illustration (absurd)
Common (!?) Marmoset (Simia jacchus Linnaeus)

late 18th c. mammal sketch (sloth)
Three-Toed Sloth (nb.)

stylised Lion in 19th c. book by Johann Bechstein

hand-coloured engraving of Hippopotamus

stylised sketch of elephant

Rhinoceros sketch (absurd)

Vulture engraving

colour engraving of the extinct Dodo bird
Dodo (extinct by 1681*)

Barbary Falcon sketch
Barbary Falcon

Blue Whale sketch with absurd facial expression
Blue Whale

Sperm Whale sketch with absurd facial expression
Sperm Whale

Antelope sketch from 19th c. natural history book

coloured engraving of Tapir

Squirrel engraving (hand-coloured) by Johann Bechstein

Polar Bear (Bechstein, 1803)

Polar Bear

I originally found this fabulous polar bear image from the Bechstein volumes a couple of years ago and chose at the time not to pursue the series. I felt that, although there was a BibliOdysseyesque diversity of material (in terms of artistic merit and style, absurdity, and range of species types), the illustrations had been largely stolen or adapted from earlier works (Buffon & Von Schreber come immediately to mind).

With the passage of time and the random rediscovery of the series website, I've had something of a change of heart. Repeated appearance of some of the illustrations (both in contemporary publishing terms and on this blog) underlines the importance and relative ubiquity of the contrived sketch settings, human-like emotions and absurdly humorous representations of some of the less familiar species in Early Modern natural history literature.

In fact, after skipping through the multiple volumes of similar material that constitute Bechstein's zoological encyclopaedia, the appearance of the anatomically correct and detailed renders among the more bizarre illustrations can feel the more incongruous finds. It's a snapshot reminder of progress in popular scientific reporting and accuracy.

Basilisk (mythological)

Wood Boring Beetle with bored-out wood block
Wood Boring Beetle

Johann Matthäus Bechstein (1757-1822) was a German ornithologist and forestry expert and a pioneer in animal and environmental conservation.

After studying and teaching theology, Bechstein's casual interest in natural history was formalised professionally with the founding in the 1790s of a forestry school and a forestry society in the German state of Thuringia.

Bechstein was a prolific author - if only a modest figure in the history of science - and is probably best remembered in the English-speaking world for his series on singing birds. He also provided the first description of several bird species, wrote a monograph on caged bird diseases and advocated for preservation of animals considered to be pests in his day (bats, for instance).


Tiffany D. Davidson said...


I especially love the wood boring beetle -- thanks for gathering all this goodness!

Will said...

I was happy to click through and discover even more (how could there be so many!) smiling and frowning (and whatever that hippo is doing) animals -- you'd think there could only be one happy whale, for instance. Scientific anthropomorphic folk art at its most hilarious and wonderful.

This guy is chillin.

kg said...

Did you ever consider to post not-naturalia items again? Greetings from

peacay said...

Well kg, on the front page right now we have: a children's book, an Early Modern technical machine book, a bird book and a weird animal book. I would say that 2 natural history posts in a row doesn't make a trend!

I don't think too much about the 'type' of post to make. What appears on BibliOdyssey on a day to day and week to week basis is decided more by luck (75%) than by design (25%).

Luc said...

Hello peacay,
Your blog is great and I read it often to see what new wonders you have to show us. As I'am interested in animal life I had a closer look at the Bechstein blog.
I can give you the correct names for some of the animals.

The basilisk is (here) not the mythical but the real one: Common Basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus).

The 'Bardadler; Falco barbatus' is not a Barbary falcon, (Bard, Barbarus means beard(ed)) but the Lammergeier, Lammergeyer, or Bearded Vulture, Gypaetus barbatus.

The squirrel is the grizzled giant squirrel (Ratufa macroura) of Sri Lanka.

The Antelope is the Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros).

The vulture is the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) from Latin America.

The common marmoset is (Callithrix jacchus).

The gibbon is the lar gibbon (Hylobates lar).

Most of these ancient Linnaeus names you can find in Wikipedia:
On that page you'll find the links to the mammalia, aves, etc (ie. Mammalia in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae; etc).

Thanks a lot for all these great blogs you offer us.

Luc (Belgium)

madcynic said...

Actually, the German description "Nordkaper" points to a Northern Right Whale, but the Latin does say Blue Whale. Looks like our illustrator was a tad confused there.

peacay said...

Thanks. I'll have to re-visit this when I get time. I thought I was fairly diligent with googling to get the species names. Oh well.

Kelly Robinson said...

Beautiful, but I think I might have nightmares about that human-faced marmoset.

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