1700 - 1850

The art of science

Museums Victoria

Remarkable natural history illustrations from Museum Victoria: Rumphius to Gould.

The art of science
Animals inspire our imaginations. Whether they fly, swim, crawl, wriggle or walk, we are endlessly fascinated with the creatures of our world.

Over the last 300 years their dazzling diversity has been described with increasing precision through scientific illustrations. Museum Victoria's archive of artworks, working drawings and rare books traces the development of scientific art and provides a glimpse into a world of uncommon beauty.

In this exhibit the art of some early natural historians, artists and illustrators is showcased. The work of each artist will be showcased in turn, in roughly chronological order.

Discovering new worlds
In 1700, Amsterdam was the epicentre of global trade. Ships of the Dutch East India Company returned to port laden with fine spices, exotic foods, delicate porcelain and rare metals from China, India and South-East Asia. 

The company’s ships also brought a host of strange animals, mostly as dried skins or as specimens preserved in alcohol.

The profusion of discoveries stimulated new ways of understanding and ordering nature, and an artist’s skill was needed to document the exotic creatures and re-create their imagined lives.

Georg Eberhard Rumpf (1627–1702)

Georg Eberhard Rumpf (Rumphius in Latin) was a merchant for the Dutch East India Company on the island of Ambon, now part of Indonesia.

Despite being blind, Rumpf assembled and classified an extraordinary collection of plants and animals using his own system of classification. D’Amboinsche Rariteitkamer was published in Amsterdam three years after his death.

Albertus Seba (1665–1736)

Albertus Seba of Amsterdam was a pharmacist and compulsive collector. His business was ideally located adjacent to Amsterdam’s busy waterfront and his fascination with the ‘rarest natural objects’ grew while searching out exotic new material for the preparation of drugs.

Seba created a great ‘cabinet of curiosities’, the pre-cursor of the modern museum, and commissioned the publication of richly illustrated volumes that describe this immense natural history collection: Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata desciptio, et iconibus artificiosissimis expressio, per universam physiees historiam (Accurate description of the very rich thesaurus of the principal and rarest natural objects).

This four-volume Thesaurus provided a vivid picture of Europe on the cusp of a scientific revolution.

Seba's Thesaurus was illustrated by a number of artists of varying competency, and contains images of thousands of exotic animals and fossils from the collection.

Hard-bodied animals such as molluscs were accurately depicted but the forms of many other animals were often distorted. The plates were hand-painted at the discretion of the purchaser, making every volume unique.

Individual images sometimes bore little relationship to the living colours of nature. In this image of an Opossum, for example, a hidden delight is the turquoise nails, artfully added by the colourist.

Mark Catesby (1682-1749)

Mark Catesby was an English naturalist. After two expeditions collecting in the English colonies in North America, he spent 20 years working on was what to be the first major publication on the natural history of this new frontier, The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands.

Mark Catesby had a great interest in the connections between animals and plants, usually depicting each animal with its food plant.

Exploring Australia
In the early days of British settlement in Australia, Europeans were alternately fascinated and overwhelmed by the new world around them, including the astonishing animals they encountered. The naive images they created of the platypus and parrots convey both their enchantment with this strange land and the challenges they faced understanding it.

France, in particular, harboured a desire to explore and colonise the Pacific. Successive French convoys were commissioned to assess the land, meet its indigenous inhabitants and collect samples of flora and fauna. On expeditions led by Baudin, Freycinet and Dumont d’Urville, artists and scientists created some of the most exquisite images of the European Enlightenment.

George Shaw (1751–1813)

George Shaw's Zoology of New Holland was a landmark publication (despite its modest size – only 34 pages). Produced by the keeper of natural history at the British Museum, this was the earliest volume dedicated to Australia’s unique fauna and it marked the first extensive use of the term ‘Australia’.

The Zoology of New Holland contained 12 dramatically composed, hand-coloured plates. The images were all the more impressive as the engraver, James Sowerby, had not visited Australia and was working from dried skins and preserved specimens.

Some of the specimens changed colour in their preserving jars before they reached England. James Sowerby coloured this freshwater crayfish a deep red. When alive, these impressive crustaceans are dark green with red (or orange) tipped abdominal spines. This was a common problem for artists at this time.

David Collins (1754–1810)

David Collins arrived at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788, aboard HMS Sirius. As deputy judge advocate, he proved to be one of the most perceptive chroniclers of the penal colony. Collins returned to England in 1796 with a rich hoard of observations that became the basis of An account of the English colony in New South Wales.

David Collins’ book provided a wide-ranging history of the colony’s first years, including descriptions of the unique animals encountered. He called the Platypus an "Amphibious Animal of the Mole Kind".

David Collins was first to publish a description of the Superb Lyrebird, noting its capacity to mimic "every known bird in the country".

Some of the plates in Collins’ account were based on sketches by Thomas Watling, a trained artist convicted and transported for forgery; the engravings were hand-coloured by artists in England. Many of the images were awkwardly executed, demonstrating just how foreign Australia’s marsupials and monotremes appeared to Europeans.

Louis Claude Desaulses de Fréycinet

In 1817, Louis de Fréycinet captained the Uranie on a journey to study the Earth’s magnetism and to collect specimens from the South Seas.

The result was a 17-volume report, Voyage autour du monde. Its pages are filled with images of the flora, fauna and peoples of Australia, Timor, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and islands of the Pacific, and depicted many plant and animal species that were new to European readers.

Fréycinet's Voyage autour du monde is particularly remarkable for the images of marine invertebrates, drawn from life aboard the Uranie before being preserved for study at the natural history museum in Paris. The plates are meticulously produced and employ a range of brilliant coloured inks that characterise the best of French publishing of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Jules Sebastien-Cesar Dumont d'Urville (1790-1842)

During his life, Dumont d'Urville circumnavigated the globe on three scientific expeditions, collecting specimens, making observations and exploring new lands. His discoveries made on these voyages were published in lavish volumes after his death.

The Golden Age of Scientific Illustration
During the 19th century, John James Audubon and John Gould brought to world attention the splendour of the planet's avian diversity. In an era infatuated with natural history, these gloriously modelled and coloured images satisfied the demands of passionate naturalists. 

Both Gould and Audubon used print-making media for their ability to create multiple original impressions. Gould's etchings demonstrated precision and delicacy of line, while aquatint etching — the technique used by Audubon — gave shading and atmospheric effects, like watercolour or drawing.

Applying colour remained the most time-consuming part of these processes, with images painstakingly hand-coloured either on the plate or on the print. For both Audubon and Gould, the birds of the new world provided the most spectacular subjects for their art. They have become inextricably linked with these two great practitioners of scientific artwork.

John James Audubon (1785–1851)

John James Audubon was a genius with a flair for self-promotion and a plan to paint, print and publish life-sized illustrations of all the bird species of North America.

Garbed in the cape of an American woodsman, Audubon sailed to Liverpool to find sponsors and oversee the production of his ambitious project. The birds of America, featuring 435 hand-coloured etchings on oversized ‘double elephant’ parchment, is the most extravagant and inspiring bird book ever produced.

Audubon worked at a time when America’s natural history was becoming increasingly entwined with national identity and myth-making. His work combined art, science and national pride, all presented in a gripping narrative. This life-size composition of hawks battling in mid-air cleverly depicts two views of the subject while celebrating the drama and beauty of the American wilderness.

Audubon worked along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, catching birds in the morning to paint before last light. Here he has depicted an Osprey in the moment of victory, its prey secure in its piercing talons.

The Osprey radiates a fierce vitality, but it was dead. Audubon was both a hunter and a naturalist; he shot his subjects and strung them up in animated positions to be painted, using an ingenious system of wires. Many people at that time believed that nature’s resources were limitless and that it was humanity’s right to exploit their abundance for financial, artistic or scientific gain.

This image was published life-size in Audubon’s magisterial The birds of America, where the scale and the subtle tones of aquatint etching emphasised both the perils and vigour of nature.

John Gould (1804–81)

John Gould started his career as a naturalist in the field of taxidermy, establishing his reputation with the mount of King George IV’s pet giraffe.

Gould was not a gifted draftsman, but he was a determined entrepreneur. He engaged a succession of superb illustrators to create 3000 sumptuous images of birds from Australasia, Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Gould's images of Australian species have come to define those birds in the imagination of many bird lovers.

John Gould first described this large flightless bird in 1857, naming it after the Australian naturalist George Bennett: Bennett’s Dwarf Cassowary Casuarius bennetti.

Gould referred to the Cassowary by its New Guinean name, Mooruk, and regarded its description as "one of the most important additions to ornithology that I have ever had the good fortune to bring before the notice of the scientific world".

Museum Victoria
Credits: Story

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.