Tag Archives: Animals

To Lop or Not

Happy Easter weekend to everyone, and Patriots’ Day to those of us in Massachusetts: I’m traveling next week, so will leave you with some rabbits, for Easter and just because. Not the common variety, mind you, but the “fancy”, lop-eared kind. These charming illustrations are from William Clark’s The Boy’s Own Book: A Complete Encyclopedia of all the Diversions, Athletic, Scientific, and Recreative, of Boyhood and Youth, first published in 1828 in London and then updated every couple of years through the end of the century. Rabbit-keeping was perceived as a beneficial “diversion” for boys, and detailed instructions for hutch construction are included in every edition I looked at, but the attitude towards which rabbits to keep evolves: the first editions emphasize the floppy lop-eared rabbits, a novelty of selective breeding, but later in the century these bunnies are viewed with more disdain: according to the fanciers, when one ear grows up straight and the the lops over the shoulder, it is a great thing, and when the two ears grow over the nose, so that the poor creature cannot see (as in the horn-lop, or when both ears stick out of each side horizontally (as in the oar-lop), or when the hollows of the ears are turned out so completely that the covered part appears in front (as in the perfect-lop), these peculiarities are considered as marks of varied degrees of perfection, but to unsophisticated minds they present nothing but monstrosities; we can see no beauty in such enormities, and shall no further describe or allude to them. 

Lop

Lop perfect

Lop 2

Lop 3 up eared rabbit A variety of lop-eared rabbits, and one preferable “up-eared” rabbit, from The Boy’s Own Book (1843-62).

So lop-eared rabbits are for the fanciers, but not for boys. The standard-bearers of the rabbit industry in America don’t have much to say about lops either, sparing only a page or so for fancy English lops in their manuals, as opposed to pages and pages on the Flemish Giant and Belgian Hare. The most Victorian of rabbits was not for everyone.

lop collage

Lop 5

Herring I, John Frederick, 1795-1865; A Happy Family American standards for English lops in the Standard of perfection for rabbits, cavies, mice, rats & skunksNational Pet Stock Association, 1915; John Frederick Herring, A Happy Family, ©Leeds Museums and Galleries.

 


Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

When I need to find fantastic beasts I know precisely where to go: straight to Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) or to its English variant, Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), both of which are illustrated extensively and digitized. Why do I need fantastic beasts? Principally for teaching purposes: there’s nothing better to illustrate the sense of the wonder of discovery in the early modern era along with a fledgling (in Topsell’s case very fledgling) scientific empiricism. Both authors describe what they have seen or heard about these beasts, and that is the difference between the early modern approach and the modern one: hearing about things seems to be just as valid as seeing them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently a unicorn can be just as real as a rhinoceros, as neither had actually been seen. What I generally do with the images and descriptions of these texts is examine very real, even mundane animals side by side with more exotic, fantastic ones, and compare the details of their descriptions: a more scientific empiricism is evident in descriptions of dogs, horses and sheep, while the much shorter chapters on camels and lions and tigers–and their more mysterious but fellow four-footed beasts–rely on ancient “authorities” and “sundry learned” authors. We do not see the hearsay purged from natural history texts until the later seventeenth and eighteenth century, and thereafter fantastic beasts roam into the realm of the imagination.

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topsell-camel1

You can see how dependent Topsell (bottom) was on Gessner (top) in their comparative illustrations of camels, along with many of the other beasts–both common and exotic–featured in both books. Gesner’s peacock is particularly beautiful, and he also includes a North American turkey.

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Beavers are very interesting to both Gessner and Topsell, as the European beaver had become very scarce, if not extinct, in the region and its American counterparts were the source of both valuable fur and a musk-like substance called castoreum, which is secreted by both male and female beavers every spring. Gessner and Topsell both feature rather ferocious beavers, and the latter added an alternate view exposing the supposed source of castoreum.

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Now for some truly fantastic beasts: the unicorns of Gessner and Topsell, a satyr from Gessner, along with some sea monsters and a seven-headed hydra.

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Topsell’s Baboon looks rather wondrous/monstrous, but his manticore, a composite beast of ancient Persian origin, and the legendary lamia, a vampire-like siren, represent a more threatening form of hybrid monster. Here be dragons and sea serpents too, as well as beast from the New World (where wonders abound) called the Su, all part of God’s plan.

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topsell-su1 Illustrations from Conrad Gessner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1558) and Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), National Library of Medicine and University of Houston.


Big Dogs on Bartlett Mall

I am not really a dog person, but as I was driving into Newburyport the other day I spotted some BIG dogs that stopped me in my tracks. They were “gathered” on the Bartlett Mall, Newburyport’s Common, overlooking the Frog Pond and Essex County Superior Courthouse (the country’s longest-serving, I believe), as one recognition of the city’s 250th anniversary. [Newburyport is so young–compared to its sister port cities to the north (Portsmouth, est. 1653) and south (Salem, which is over 380 years old)– because it split off from the greater Newbury in 1764]. They are traveling dogs, the work of Haverhill artist Dale Rogers, who is a big believer in public art and strives to craft works that become “mental postcards”. These dogs will only be on the Mall until the 24th, so if you’re in the area stop by and see them; if not, here are some real postcards to remember them by.

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Big Dogs 008

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Big Dogs 6

Big Dogs 7

 


Black Cat Covers

Many months ago I wrote about a small publishing company in turn-of-the-century Salem named the S.E. Cassino Company with a diverse list of publications that included Black Cat Magazine, a pulp fiction/short story magazine (which featured Jack London and Henry Miller among its authors) that was in publication from 1895-1923. The Cassino company acquired Black Cat after the unfortunate death of its founding editor in 1912, and moved its operations from Boston to Salem, at least briefly–and then there was a twenty-year run of really cute black cat Black Cat covers. I recently came across a treasure trove of these images, and because they are so so striking (and it’s October in Salem) I thought I would feature a series of them. The Cover Cat cuts a pretty conventional silhouette on the first 1895 cover, but as you can see on this series of October covers, he gets bolder with each passing year. My favorite is from 1907, with the squirrels. Unfortunately, I can’t find the artist (s) responsible for these covers; if anyone has any information, please pass it along.

Black Cat 1895

Black Cat 96

Black Cat 1897

Black Cat 1900 cover

Black Cat 1901

Black Cat 1902

Black Cat 1904

Black Cat 1905

Black Cat 1907

Black Cat 1908

Black Cat 1913 cover

October Black Cat Covers from the digital collection of an amazing magazine bibliographer, 1895-1913.

Much, much more unfortunately, I have very bad news about a real black cat:  a kitten, to be more precise. This past Tuesday, someone stole a weeks-old black kitten named Sunshine (with an intestinal condition !!!) from our animal shelter here in Salem: this is just the sort of story that intensifies my dislike and disdain for October in the Witch City.


Fox and Geese

The pictures from my last post on the Coolidge Reservation do not convey one of its major features:  what remains of  the many geese that obviously enjoy the Ocean Lawn as much as other visitors. I remarked upon this to the ranger who was stationed there, and he laughed and told us that they brought in a fox to keep the geese away, but after a while he gave up and left……the geese won. The parable of the fox and the geese and their adversarial relationship is an old one, even older than the fox in the hen-house I think, and it has inspired centuries of illustrations, decorative objects, and games, all featuring the hunter and the hunted or the geese somehow outfoxing the fox; in either case, the two parties are inevitably intertwined, in one way or another.

Fox and Geese Harley BL

Fox and geese

British Library MS Harley 4751, English Bestiary, 1230-40; Fox and Geese in the Tudor Pattern Book, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1504, 1520-30.

It looks like the fox is winning in these two pre-modern images, and he definitely has the upper hand in most representations of the relationship, at least until the creation of a succession of satirical views from the later eighteenth century onwards.

Fox Goose and Gander

Fox and Geese BM

Johann Heinrich Tischbein, A Goose and a Gander Honking in Alarm as Foxes Approach, mid-18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Goose Lost (a caricature of British politician Charles James Fox), published by J. Barrow, 1784, British Museum.

Porcelain and pottery with fox-and-goose motifs were also produced around this time, including rather elaborate pieces for extensive table services and the popular ABC and proverbial plates for children. Talk about intertwined: look at the gravy (sauce) boat below!

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Fox and Goose Gravy Boat

Fox Plate V and A

Fox and Goose plate Cooper Hewitt

Fox and Goose plate detail

Meissen Porcelain Cup and Saucer, c. 1760, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute; AMAZING Staffordshire Fox and Goose Sauce Boat, c. 1780-1790, and Transferware Plate, 1790, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Creamware Fox and Goose ABC Plate by Elsmore & Son, England, late nineteenth century.

Children’s books published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether fables, nursery rhymes, or bedtime stories, feature a variety of illustrations of foxes and geese, generally on friendlier, or at least less predatory, terms. And then there were the fox-and-goose games of strategic pursuit, played on a board, in the parlor or even outside, which date back to the seventeenth century at the very least. Textile designs in the past and present  feature fox and geese continuously, in abstracted patterns for quilting and knitting, and more literal prints for fabrics and wallpapers.

Fox and Geese Game 1883

FoxGeesePieces

Fox Fabric

Fox and Geese board game, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1993, Smithsonian Institution, and pieces from a modern version of the game; Westfalenstoffe fox and geese fabric.

My favorite images of these two natural enemies are a bit more basic and elemental, in line with the medieval and Tudor images above. The realistic, rather than romantic relationship was captured completely by John James Audubon in the nineteenth century and The National Geographic more recently: these are elemental and eternal images.

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John James Audubon, Fox and Goose, c. 1835, Butler Art; An arctic fox and a snow goose face off in Sergy Gorshkov’s photograph for National Geographic,


Imperial Ermine

In the midst of a royal-birth-dominated media week I found myself in my graduate class, interpreting two iconic Renaissance portraits with ermines in them. And thus a post was provoked. How did this little weasel get associated with royalty, pretentious nobility, and the academic and clerical hierarchy? The answer lies in the (rare) white fur of this beast (more scientifically know as the stoat, or short-tailed weasel) as well as the emblems incorporated into what became a distinct ermine design: for no animal has the “ermine” black and white coat, it is a heraldic invention.

Ermine Leonardo

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Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan), 1489-90, The Czartoryski Museum and Library, Krakow; Nicholas Hilliard, The Ermine Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, 1585, Hatfield House.

Leonardo has a real ermine in his portrait of a woman who is presumed to be Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of his powerful patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan–whose heraldic emblem was an ermine. But the little creature on Elizabeth’s arm, wearing a crown collar, is an artistic creation based on the ermine pattern, in which the distinctive black tips of the animal’s (several animals actually) tail is stitched onto the fur, sometimes cut into distinct heraldic shapes. I think you can see this most clearly in the portrait below, in which a sixteen-century German merchant’s wife is wearing very distinct ermine sleeves (and a lot of jewelry) with her family crest in the corner.

ermine Cologne portrait

Bathel Bruyn the Younger, Portrait of Woman of the Slosgin Family of Cologne, 1557, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As eminent (and wealthy) as she might have been, this woman is not a Queen–or even the mistress of a Duke: it seems like anyone can wear ermine in the sixteenth century, at least outside of England. The black-and-white (or white-and-black) patterned “fur” had become a device of conspicuous consumption and social mobility, because of its long-held associations with majesty, wealth, and a Christ-like “purity bought with his own death”, in which it was said that the ermine would give himself up to the approaching hunter, so not to sully his pure white winter coat (not quite sure why this was royal). The sheer expense of  ermine is most likely the ultimate source of its desire and association with the wealthy and privileged: the stoat’s coat is pure white only in winter, and then there are all those little black tails. I do think ermine maintains its exclusive association with royalty longer in England than on the Continent, but I could be wrong.

Ermine Bedford Hours

Ermine George I

Ermine sign for Crown Inn 1750 V and A

Ermines

Ermine in various incarnations, through the ages: The Duke of Bedford prays before St. George in his ermine-lined robe, c 1423, the Bedford Hours, 1423  (Additional Ms. 18850 ), British Library, Mezzotint of King George I by John Smith, 1715, British Museum; Drawing for a sign for the Crown Inn, c. 1750, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; The Stout wearing his summer and winter coats, Prang & Co., 1878, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.  

Appendix:  as a stark contrast to Leonardo’s portrait, I could not resist adding this Ermine with a Lady portrait” by Ellen Paquette!

Ermine with a Lady


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