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Monday, October 17, 2011

The First Wildlife Artists

It hasn't been that many years ago when astronauts were going to the moon, scraping up all manner of rocks and dirt to bring back, and taking pictures of each other cavorting in the moon's reduced gravity. When they returned, people lined up at museums to view in pressurized glass cases the moon rocks, or to peer through Plexiglas at the photos. Things haven't changed all that much in the last three or four hundred years; only the means of bringing the glimpses of a strange new world back home.  About 225 years ago, George Abbot, the son of an English lawyer, left his homeland at the age of twenty-two, never to return again. He spent the rest of his life exploring the "new world" (which was already almost three hundred years old), drawing and painting wildlife in the Virginia and Georgia colonies. He complained about wars and the politics that brought to life a new nation around him.  And, he noted as early as 1812, that the new symbol of that new nation was already rare. But most of what he drew and painted was not for domestic consumption. He sent it back to England accompanied by actual specimens of the animals involved. He made a good living at it too. For most of his life, his work was in constant demand by European collectors and scientists (often one and the same at the time).

Sir Ashton Lever, 1729-88
From these specimens, another artist, Sarah Stone, made a career of drawing additional illustrations for books and scientific periodicals of the time. Born in 1760, what began as an amateur's hobby, eventually evolved into a full-time career illustrating the collection of Sir Ashton Lever, and eccentric collector of just about anything the swam, flew, or crawled across the face of the earth. In many cases, her illustrations were the first ever for some of these creatures, many of which are now, extinct. In 1806, when Sir Ashton died, his possessions were sold to museums all over the world. The collection was so huge, the auction took 65 days. The effect was to scatter the relics to the four winds. Only Sarah Stone's illustrations remained intact. And, though little else is known about her, her artwork bears testimony to the meticulous nature of her mind and eye.

Niam Niam Parrot, c. 1785, Sarah Stone
Keep in mind this was some fifty years before John James Audubon did his thing. In fact it was George Abbot who first took Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, on his first field exhibitions. (Wilson was later one of Audubon's benefactors.) But bird watching in America goes back even further than this. Sir Walter Raleigh employed an artist by the name of John White to draw the flora and fauna of his ill-fated Roanoke Island colony as early as 1585. The work of Abbot and other similar artists has filled the dusty showcases of eager European collectors for centuries since, though they remained largely unseen by the public. Abbot worked quietly and diligently for over 65 years even though demand for his drawings eventually decrease to the point that when he died at the age of 87, he was penniless and forgotten. The work of these scientist/artists was later overshadowed by Audubon's publications. Only in recent years have these early wildlife artists begun to finally receive their due. In 1999 The Natural History Museum and the University of Washington Press together published a series of nine volumes of their work.
Land Crab,  c. 1600, John White

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