A Two-Dimensional Zoo
THE PAPER ZOO: 500 Years of Animals in Art. Charlotte Sleigh. 256 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2017. $45.
In the modern era, one of the entitlements that comes with a life expectancy that extends well past one’s teen years is the pleasure of grumbling about the younger generation. It’s a familiar refrain: As modes of entertainment and instruction have changed, adults begin their musings with something like, “How will kids learn to use their imaginations,” continuing from there with a phrase that varies by generation. Today it might be “when all they have to do is put on a virtual reality headset”—but previous iterations have included “plug in a computer game,” “turn on the TV,” “switch on the radio,” “go to the moving pictures” and “open the funny pages.”
Historian Charlotte Sleigh’s book The Paper Zoo, which taps into the British Museum’s rich collection to explore and contextualize five centuries of zoological illustration (our sampler), leads one to conclude that the refrain’s origin can be traced back to 1659. Johann Amos Comenius’s elementary reader Orbis sensualium pictus (“The Visible World in Pictures”), Sleigh explains, “is commonly regarded as the first picture book for children.”
By combining didactic text with illustrations Comenius had, with the stroke of a printing press, invented multimedia instruction. His petite depictions of animals, each appearing alongside a letter of the alphabet meant to represent the sound the animal makes, are clear and endearing without being especially cute. It’s easy to see how they would capture a child’s interest and, as Sleigh observes, ease memorization: Presenting the image of an animal next to a letter whose sound replicates the creature’s hooting, braying, growling, or hissing was an instructional breakthrough.
In addition to their utility in the classroom, Sleigh notes, zoological illustrations helped far-flung naturalists keep up with discoveries made in distant corners of the world. Further, the very act of drawing proved useful to some scholars as they strove to prove hypotheses; later on, sharing the finished illustration could lend additional credence to the research. A particularly fascinating example involves a meticulous study undertaken by 17th-century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who performed computations and made architectural-style drawings to ascertain whether all land-dwelling species known to European scientists at the time could have fit on Noah's ark. He believed his calculations verified the physical viability of the biblical story. This intertwining of the spiritual and the scientific wasn’t unusual at the time, and Kirchner’s detailed drawing, included as a two-page spread in The Paper Zoo, is a tidy marvel of its day. The scholar’s attempt to work out the scale of the ark and its cargo looks very much like a precursor to contemporary infographics. You can almost picture its headline in some imagined antecedent of today's science magazines: “Ship Shape: How Noah Pulled It Off.”
Sleigh reminds us that for several centuries illustrations of the world’s fauna, whether depicted in woodcuts, etchings, engravings, or even stained glass church windows, provided the only way most people could acquire familiarity with creatures that existed outside their own particular ecosystem. Until zoological gardens began appearing in the early 19th century, the menageries assembled by aristocrats had a tightly exclusive viewership. (The Royal Menagerie kept on the grounds of the Tower of London was a notable exception.) The paper zoo, as Sleigh calls it, became a kind of “democratized menagerie,” one that brought a wider understanding of the animal world to a broader public.
It was not without a cost to the creatures depicted, however. She notes that “a pictured animal is generally a dead animal, an animal that has been killed and collected.” There was a dreadful human cost too: The African zoological specimen trade was bound up economically and logistically with the slave trade. Sleigh also points out a paradox of the paper zoo’s role over time. As interest in exotic animals grew, so did the popularity of hunting for sport. Eventually, the very illustrations that had fostered wider knowledge of and sparked broader interest in zoology also served as a kind of field guide for trophy hunters.
The book’s sections on exotic animals (in other words, those not native to Great Britain) and on “paradoxical” creatures (that is, fauna such as flying fish and stick insects that appeared to defy taxonomic boundaries) are balanced by chapters on domestic animals and on Great Britain’s native species. The pleasures of these chapters, although less intense, are abundant and not to be overlooked. A focus on domestic animals is a rare treat among books that take an art historical approach to zoology. The chapter features excellent images of sheep, horses, and dogs—those crucial emblems of British rural life—but Sleigh also extends the category beyond the expected livestock and pets. She includes some handsome illustrations of raptors from falconry texts, for instance, as well as two colorful carp: one ornamental and the other farmed for the dinner table.
Readers who are deeply interested in the intersections of zoology, art, and culture will find The Paper Zoo a fine complement to the delightful Animal series from Reaktion Books and to the gorgeous Natural Histories series from the American Museum of Natural History (Extraordinary Birds, Opulent Oceans, and the eponymous Natural Histories). The latter series is an especially intriguing companion to The Paper Zoo, as it samples exclusively from the American Museum of Natural History’s archival materials, just as Sleigh’s book uses only images from the British Museum’s collection. The collections of these two archives diverge and overlap, and it’s fascinating to compare Sleigh’s curatorial choices with those represented in Natural Histories series. For example, the Greenland falcon from the highly rare text Traité de Fauconnerie is reproduced in both Sleigh’s book and in Extraordinary Birds. Although its inclusion may represent a purely aesthetic choice (the illustration, by 19th-century master Joseph Wolf, is exquisite), the image’s appearance in both works also suggests its canonical status.
The Paper Zoo is a beautiful and absorbing work. Whether it serves as an addition to the natural history buff’s collection or as a first expedition into the golden era of zoological illustration, it is a deeply satisfying book. Sleigh, with her thoughtful approach to contextualization and curation, has created a space where contemporary readers, however steeped in visual media they may be, can marvel at the pure alchemy of ink and paint and pulp.
This post is published in Science Culture