A Collection of Kings College Zoological Illustrations

Posted in: News on July 17, 2017.

Dawson’s are excited to announce the sale of sixty zoological and anatomical watercolour illustrations in their July sale. These illustrations were originally used as scientific aids within the departments of Kings College London and focus on a range of subjects, from sea floor gastropods to the anatomy of the mole. They were used to explain biological function, demonstrate anatomy and distinguish between specific species, and range from depictions of the whole organism to the microscopic.

Zoological illustration is the use of technical illustration to visually communicate specific details and biological functions of subjects of study. In a pre-photography world, though also in fact alongside photography, this was a complete necessity. Throughout history, zoological illustration has allowed those studying in the murk of London to explore the intricacies of the exotic birds of the Amazon, and have let the Glaswegian veterinary student understand the African elephant.

And where can we find the beginnings of zoological illustration? Can we perhaps look back to Pre-History, for its source? Palaeolithic cave paintings were so detailed that we can recognise species and breeds of many of the animals depicted even today. A beautiful example can be found in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in the south of France (c.30 000 BC), in which we can decipher at least thirteen different species. In another prehistoric cave (c. 15 000 BC) there exists a drawing of a mammoth with a darkened area where the heart should be. If this was the intention of its maker (and how will we ever know?), it would be history’s first anatomical illustration.

A century ago, drawing was taught as an essential skill for scientists, valued for communicating findings but also in enhancing observations. The practice of drawing requires a deeper level of observation, something by and large we have lost in our age of instant photography. Creating a high-level scientific illustration requires a thorough understanding of biological processes, anatomy and structural diversity. It is so easy to take shortcuts, to guess at the exact patterning on the wing of a dragon fly. Our pre-disposed understanding of what we should see when we look at something is abolished through the practice of drawing. Illustration is a means of exploration.

By the early 20th century, scientific discovery was well advanced to be able to dismiss zoological illustration altogether. But although for years we have had microscopic and exacting photography at our fingertips, hand drawn illustration holds so much appeal, and as a career can still be pursued at undergraduate and graduate level. Zoological illustration highlights the historic dependence of art on science, and visa versa. These are two subjects that have only relatively recently been forced apart, beginning with a child’s very early choice on whether to be ‘sciencey’ or ‘artsy’, a choice that will more often than not leave a lifetime void in their knowledge. Perhaps it is the artistic pleasure gained from studying scientific illustration that adds something to its endurance. Beauty makes the often unpalatability of science slightly less distasteful, lets the viewer forget they are looking at a dissected creature (or worse- a human corpse! See Vesalius’s anatomical illustrations of the 16th century for possibly the most tasteful example of this). To focus specifically on the Kings College illustrations, one wonders if their enjoyment lies in scientific merit alone. How much can a scientist gain from this rather uninformative image of a dolphin?

Furthermore, rather than having been copied from life, other sources are apparent in many. The flying fox (Teropus Whitei), for example, seems to have been directly modelled on Edward Lear’s illustration of the same subject.

Zoological illustration has been vital in the flow of knowledge and advance of science through the world. We have come far (and in part I am sad that this objective faith in falsehood is so far behind us) from the reign of Durer’s scaled and armoured rhinoceros.

These illustrations will sell as separate lots on the 22nd of July. All proceeds from the illustrations will be donated to Kings College London.

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