Silver Dory, Cyttus australis

Ludwig Becker1858-07

Museums Victoria

Museums Victoria

This scientific illustration by Ludwig Becker was commissioned by Sir Frederick McCoy, Director of Museum Victoria as part of his zoological research. It forms part of the much larger Prodromus Collection. Many of the original illustrations in the collection informed the production of the two-volume work "The Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria" which was Museum Victoria's first major publication beginning in 1878. Before the popularisation of photography, artists were essential to science. They provided an empirical eye and the capacity to accurately record images of animals and plants, while emphasising their unique and diagnostic features. One of the best-known Prodromus artists was Ludwig Becker. A highly skilled miniaturist, Becker entered into the minutiae of the scenes and animals he depicted. His drawings were often accompanied by annotations in an attractive and expansive script in visually-charged language. Frederick McCoy encountered Becker early in his career among Melbourne's small circle of scientific gentlemen. Becker's illustrated papers for the Proceedings of the Philosophical Institute must have made a positive impression, as McCoy considered the potential contribution Becker might make to his own more ambitious project to illustrate the zoology of Victoria. In 1858 McCoy engaged Becker to create lithographs at a rate of £10 per plate. While Becker seemed to have been continually aggravated by the Professor's tardy payments, McCoy in contrast appears to have held Becker in high regard, referring to him posthumously as 'the late and clever observer and artist'. The Prodromus project followed a popular formula of the time, seeking to identify and classify the natural wonders of the 'new world'. Such publications reached a peak in popularity with the work of John Gould in England and the earlier work of James Audubon in America. In Australia, many professional and amateur publications, including Aldine's systematic studies of the colonies and Louise Anne Meredith's Bush Friends From Tasmania, contributed to the genre. The publication of the Prodromus was an enormous undertaking, utilising the work of numerous artists, collectors, lithographers and publishers, over an extended period of time. Although costly in both financial and professional terms, it was met with critical acclaim and wide popular support. Financial battles were waged and lost by McCoy, but ultimately the Prodromus has stood the test of time and remains one of Museum Victoria's finest publications. McCoy died without completing his systematic study, but even at the time few believed that 'any of us will live to witness the completion of the work, if the entire Fauna of Victoria is to be illustrated.'

Show lessRead more


  • Title: Silver Dory, Cyttus australis
  • Creator: Ludwig Becker
  • Date Created: 1858-07
  • Type: Image
  • Rights: Copyright expired: Source: Museum Victoria / Artist: Ludwig Becker, Copyright expired: Source: Museum Victoria / Artist: Ludwig Becker
  • External Link: Museum Victoria Collections
  • Medium: Pencil, watercolour and indian ink on paper
  • Themes: fish
  • Artist biography: Ludwig Becker was born at Offenbach am Main near Darmstadt, Germany on 5 September 1808. He achieved a doctorate of philosophy and left Germany during the 1848 revolution.After some time in Rio de Janeiro he arrived at Launceston in 1851. He was described by Lady Denison as "one of those universal geniuses who can do anything...a very good naturalist, geologist...draws and plays and sings, conjures and ventriloquises and imitates the notes of birds so accurately". In 1852-54, while gold-digging in Bendigo, Becker made meteorological observations and produced sketches which he exhibited in Melbourne in April 1854. He became a council member of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts in 1856 and of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria in 1859, and was a leading member of the German Club. He corresponded with ornithologist and zoologist John Gould, known as the father of bird study in Australia, on the lyrebird, and was one of the first to try to raise a lyrebird chick and sent sketches of the egg to ornithologists in Germany and France.Becker's scientific knowledge and artistic ability qualified him for selection as a member of the Victorian Exploring Expedition in 1860-61, which has since become known as the Burke and Wills expedition. It was organised by the Philosophical Institute of Victoria which in 1860 became the Royal Society of Victoria. Becker, as artist, naturalist and geologist on a salary of Ł300, was to collect specimens, keep a diary and produce daily maps with illustrations and sections.The Burke and Wills expedition was the most expensive in the history of Australian exploration. It cost over Ł60,000 and would eventually claim seven lives, Becker being one of them. His death was lamented in newspapers and journals both in the Australian Colonies and in Germany, and he was mourned by colleagues at the Royal Society.
  • Artist: Ludwig Becker