1850 - 1900

Scientific Art in Victoria, Australia

Museums Victoria

Remarkable natural history illustrations from Museum Victoria

Scientific Art in Victoria
In 1851, the same year that the colony of Victoria, Australia, gained its independence from New South Wales, gold was discovered. The rush that ensued saw Melbourne transformed into a confident sprawling city. Among the fortune hunters were individuals of sparkling intelligence and artistic flair. Fresh from Berlin, London, Cambridge and Dublin, they infused the evolving city with new ideas and institutions, including a fledgling museum, the beginnings of Museum Victoria.
In 1854, when Frederick McCoy was appointed inaugural professor of natural science at the University of Melbourne, the laboratory he established became the centre of the country's taxonomic investigations. Specimens received from across the colony were identified and illustrated before being prepared for display at the adjacent museum. 
Frederick McCoy engaged the best artists to create images of Victoria's fauna for the education of the 'colonists', who would require an empirical account of those animals upon which industries might be based, along with pests that could threaten agricultural expansion. 
In 1858, Frederick McCoy was appointed the Director of the National Museum of Victoria and he started work on a project to publish a "Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria". (The word Prodromus means preliminary description).
The Prodromus
The "Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria" 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.

The Prodromus

Rebecca Carland and John Kean uncover the story behind Frederick McCoy's beautiful collection of scientific illustrations in The Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria.

Arthur Bartholomew (1834–1909)

McCoy engaged the best artists in the colony, including Arthur Bartholomew, to illustrate Victoria’s fauna.

Methodical and systematic in his approach, Bartholomew's work was characterised by a fastidious attention to detail and remarkable technical facility.

The cool atmosphere of the university laboratory was ideal for Bartholomew’s systematic studies of Victorian frogs. He meticulously recorded details required for identification, including the strange forms inside the mouth and the distinctive hand and feet pads of each species.

Created by the successive applications of watercolour washes, Bartholomew’s paintings flawlessly capture the moist, knobbly skin of his subjects.

Illustrating Absence

Rebecca Carland, Curator of the History of Museum Victoria’s Collections, tells the story of how historical research can become a personal obsession; in her case, while uncovering the life of zoological illustrator Arthur Bartholomew.

Ludwig Becker (1808–61)

Ludwig Becker was one of several German-speaking intellectuals who were attracted to the Victorian gold rush. Professor Frederick McCoy encountered Becker among Melbourne's small circle of scientific gentlemen and commissioned him to illustrate specimens for the Memoirs of the museum.

Ludwig Becker created this animated pen-and-watercolour study on 18 December 1858.

The Weedy Seadragon is endemic to Australia's southern coast and is now Victoria's state marine emblem. This bizarre fish has captured the imagination of many who have encountered it. Frederick McCoy noted: 'this most singular-looking Fish must have struck the Aborigines with some superstitious feeling, as I have seen a native drawing of a ghost, manifestly inspired by its strange form.'

Becker's drawings were often accompanied by annotations in an attractive and expansive script that utilised visually charged language.

John James Wild (1834-1900)

John James Wild came to Melbourne in 1881, after serving as the official artist on HMS Challenger's circumnavigation of the globe (1872-76).

Wild brought a new level of analytical precision to the illustration of McCoy's Zoology of Victoria. He particularly enjoyed exploring symmetry and geometric form, such as that found in articulated exoskeletons, antennae and transparent wings.

Wild was an accomplished lithographer. Carefully planned and tightly conceived, his images are the most technically sophisticated in the Prodromus.

Educating the people

As well as the advancement of science, 19th century museums aspired to contribute to the moral education and material betterment of their constituents.

As director of the National Museum of Victoria, Frederick McCoy exercised authority on behalf of the government, providing answers to practical questions for the benefit of the settlers. Instruction came in the form of displays at the museums and publications, as well as educational posters.

Australian snakes were rightly feared for their deadly venom. The majority of colonists, having arrived from countries where snakes were a rarity, were fearful of their prevalence and ferocity.

The Dangerous Snakes of Victoria poster was created by the Museum with the backing of the Education Department to educate and improve awareness in the community. However, it may well have caused consternation. It was distributed to every school and railway station from Melbourne to cities and towns across the colony.

Unlike the majority of native animals, insect-eating birds were valued by the colonists for their capacity to control insect pests. This poster was intended to standardise the names for some of Victoria’s most common and useful birds.

It was issued to schools in 1878, with the Minister for Public Instruction’s warning to slingshot-wielding children that ‘These birds will be protected by law from destruction.’

The charismatic White-backed Crow-shrike, or Magpie, occupies centre stage.

The Natural History Cabinet

This video presents an insight into the creation of the Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria. It is narrated by Rebecca Carland, Curator of the History of Museum Victoria's Collections.

Museum Victoria
Credits: Story

This exhibit is based on works held at Museum Victoria and showcased in the Art of Science exhibition which toured Australia during 2012-2014.
The exhibition was devised and curated by John Kean.

Full text digitised versions of some of the works shown here are available in the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.