Friday, 25 March 2016

Frank Buckland's Nondescript – a fabulous flying (?) creature

Frank Buckland, the famous Natural Historian, described a merman that had been exhibited in London [1] as having been made by fusing the torso of a monkey to the body of a fish, most likely a hake, with some additions to add effect. Exhibits of mermen and mermaids were popular in the Nineteenth Century, but they were always advertised more enthusiastically than their reality was worth. They were, of necessity, shrivelled and dry and quite different to the many exotic living creatures that could be viewed in Zoological Gardens and Aquaria and which were brought back from expeditions to many parts of the World, such a feature of the time.

After describing the merman and a mermaid, Buckland introduces us to another preserved creature, the Nondescript (shown above and not to be confused with the object of the same name created by Charles Waterton [2]). Buckland describes "his" Nondescript in Curiosities of Natural History (the creature was part of the zoological collection he kept in his home) [3]:

The Nondescript is about as big as a baby three months old, and as a crusty bachelor friend said, "really very much like one."

He has wings on the top of his shoulder like the old army aigulettes, and there are claws on the tips and on the extreme ends of each wing: these wings are so artfully contrived that one would believe they could be opened out and unfurled like a bat's wing at any moment the creature that carried it wished to take a fly a either for business or amusement.

The arms are amazingly human-like, and look as though the dried skin had shrunk fast on to the bone; the legs also represent a similar appearance. The hands and feet are demon-like, and of a long, scraggy, merciless appearance, and each finger and toe is armed with a formidable-looking claw. The ribs project frightfully, as though the nondescript had lately been living for some time à la malcontent. The head is about as big as a very large apple. The ears project outwards and downwards, like those of an African elephant. The face is wrinkled and deformed; the nose like a pig’s snout; the eyes like those of a codfish; the teeth exactly the same as those in the mermaid.. – double rows in each jaw, with protruding fangs in front; and surmounting this hideous countenance, a rough shock of fine-wool-like hair..

From this description, and from the illustration, it is difficult to imagine that anyone could believe that this had been a living creature. The appearance of the Nondescript mirrored that of illustrations of devils, compounded by the addition of wings that were very similar to those of bats, animals that have an unfortunate, and undeserved, reputation [4]. Anyone with biological knowledge would be immediately suspicious on seeing that wings and arms were both present, as we know that the latter developed from, and replaced, the ancestral fore-limbs in both bats and birds. Those dedicated to the many images of angels (that have both wings and arms) would maybe have been less worried by this detail and the Nondescript was clearly designed to represent an "evil angel".

After Frank Buckland had acquired the Nondescript to add to his collection, he was able to examine it in more detail and this is what he found [3]:

Everybody said that there must be bones in the arms and the legs and ribs. I soon tested this with a surgical exploring needle [Buckland was trained as a surgeon], but found no bone, or anything like a bone, but simply soft wood, probably cedar. I made several incisions in the Nondescript’s body, and found that the main portion of his composition was (like the legs) a light wood. The skin, as well as the wings, are made of a species of papier-mâché, most artfully put on in wrinkles, and admirably coloured and shaded to give the appearance of the dried body of some creature that had once existed either on land or sea – had been slain – and then preserved as a curiosity.

As Buckland's Nondescript was one of many, most probably produced in Japan, the wings could be those of an oriental fruit bat and he must have considered, and dismissed, that possibility. As an army officer, Buckland must also have been intrigued by the insertion of the wings “like old army aigulettes” (see an image of these accessories below) and how this presents challenges to understanding how they might have been used in flight. It’s the same problem for anyone trying to understand how angels flap their wings, of course [5].

Belief in the Nondescript, comes from our ability to suspend a rational approach. In a fairground, with poor lighting and with a barker to stress the importance of the creature, one can easily see how people could be taken in and believe the Nondescript to have been a real creature. A cynic might suggest that religion has its equivalent of barkers in getting us to believe in images of angels, although there are no remains of angels for us to examine. That is not to say that these heavenly beings cannot exist; rather that they are supernatural and yet have been shown as physical beings in paintings and sculpture. Is it fair to make that comparison?

[3] Francis T Buckland (1866) Curiosities of Natural History. A New Series Volume II. London, Richard Bentley.

[5] Roger S. Wotton (2009) Angels, putti, dragons and fairies: believing the impossible. Opticon1826 7:1-7.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Oxburgh Hall, Fabre's Entomology, and Evolution

While visiting the Library of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, I found a copy of Hugh Miller's Foot-prints of the Creator: or the Asterolepis of Stromness and wondered whether the Fox Talbot family had been enthusiastic readers of the book [1]. Last week, I was at Oxburgh Hall, the ancestral home of the Roman Catholic Bedingfield family, famous for its well-preserved Priest's Hole, into which the brave can still clamber. This hidden room was to protect Roman Catholic clerics after the Reformation, a time when they were hunted and persecuted. The house and park are wonderful places to visit [2] and I followed my usual habit of perusing the spines of the volumes in the Library: one of the books that stood out was a copy of Jean-Henri Fabre's Social Life in the Insect World.

Fabre, who lived from 1823 to 1915, was an enthusiastic entomologist and had the ability to engage readers with his descriptions of insects and their behaviour, often amplified by the results of experiments that he conducted. Here is an example from Social Life in the Insect World where he discusses his observations on the Oak Eggar Moth Lasiocampa quercus (see above). The text is translated from the French and this is what members of the Bedingfield family would have read [3]:

One afternoon, while trying to determine whether sight plays any part in the search for the female once the males had entered the room, I placed the female in a bell-glass and gave her a slender twig of oak with withered leaves as a support. The glass was set upon a table facing the open window. Upon entering the room the moths could not fail to see the prisoner, as she stood directly in the way. The tray, containing a layer of sand, on which the female had passed the preceding day and night, covered with a wire-gauze dish-cover, was in my way. Without premeditation I placed it at the other end of the room on the floor, in a corner where there was little light. It was a dozen yards away from the window.
   The result of these preparations entirely upset my preconceived ideas. None of the arrivals stopped at the bell-glass, where the female was plainly to be seen, the light falling full upon her prison. Not a glance, not an inquiry. They all flew to the further end of the room, into the dark corner where I had placed the tray and the empty dish-cover.
   They alighted on the wire dome, explored it persistently, beating their wings and jostling one another. All the afternoon, until sunset, the moths danced about the empty cage the same saraband that the actual presence of the female had previously evoked. Finally they departed: not all, for there were some that would not go, held by some magical attractive force.

I find this description of what we now know to be the action of pheromones to be delightful: who could not be fascinated by Fabre's account of his experiment? Charles Darwin certainly valued his work in insect biology and, in a letter to Fabre on 31st January 1880 [4], wrote:

I hope that you will permit me to have the satisfaction of thanking you cordially for the lively pleasure which I have derived from reading your book. Never have the wonderful habits of insects been more vividly described, and it is almost as good to read about them as to see them.

Further in the same letter comes this:

I am sorry that you are so strongly opposed to the Descent theory; I have found the searching for the history of each structure or instinct an excellent aid to observation; and wonderful observer as you are, it would suggest new points to you. If I were to write on the evolution of insects, I could make good use of some of the facts which you give.

Fabre's Creationism came from his deep religious beliefs, recorded by his biographer and namesake, Abbé Augustin Fabre [5]: these times of overweening atheism [the biography was published in 1921], when so many pseudo-scientists are striving to persuade the ignorant that science is learning to dispense with God, would it not be a most timely thing to reveal, to the eyes of all, a scientist of undoubted genius who finds in science fresh arguments for belief, and manifold occasions for affirming his faith in the God who has created and rules the world?

Incorporating quotes from Jean-Henri Fabre, he continues:

.."Life is a horrible phantasmagoria. But it leads us to a better future.".. ..This future the naturalist [Fabre] liked to conceive in accordance with the images familiar in his mind, as being a more complete understanding of the great book of which he had deciphered only a few words, as a more perfect communion with the offices of nature, in the incense of the perfumes "that are softly exhaled by the carven flowers from their golden censers," amid the delightful symphonies in which are mingled the voices of crickets and Cicadae, chaffinches and siskins, skylarks and goldfinches, "those tiny choristers," all singing and fluttering, "trilling their motets to the glory of Him who gave them voice and wings on the fifth day of Genesis."..

.."And when one evening," says his friend, "I remarked that these little miracles clearly proved the existence of a divine Artificer: 'For me, I do not believe in God', declared the scientist, repeating for the last time his famous and paradoxical profession of faith: 'I do not believe in God, because I see Him in all things and everywhere.'"

It is fitting then that Fabre's book is in the Library (shown below) at Oxburgh Hall, the home of the Roman Catholic Bedingfield family. Not only will family members have thoroughly enjoyed Fabre's descriptions of his observations and experiments in entomology, they would also empathise with the importance of his faith, although they may have questioned Fabre's dogmatism. It is easy to sympathise with Darwin's frustration at the conflict between reason and the unbending position of those believing that The Holy Bible must be taken literally. It is a conflict that continues today.

[3] Jean-Henri Fabre (1911) Social Life in the Insect World (translated by Bernard Miall). London, T. Fisher Unwin Ltd.

[5] Abbé Augustin Fabre (1921) The Life of Jean Henri Fabre, the Entomologist 1823-1910 (translated by Bernard Miall). New York, Dodd, Mead and Company.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Titian, Turner and Inspiration

J.M.W.Turner is recognised for his exceptional use of light and his love of storms, mists, rough seas and other threatening, or mysterious, natural events. Meteorological effects fascinated him from boyhood, when he lay on his back to look at the sky [1], not allowing any intrusion from his surroundings, and then returning home to paint his impressions. Like many artists, Turner spent much of his childhood drawing and painting what he saw and this continued throughout his life. He was an enthusiastic traveller and produced many sketchbooks filled with landscapes, but he also painted figures and buildings; some real, some imaginary.

Turner's first formal training came as a teenager at the Royal Academy Schools [1], when he developed an interest in architecture and perspective, both features of his later paintings in the style of Claude Lorrain. Further influences were Aelbert Cuyp and other painters of classical landscapes, but there is no doubting Turner's originality in producing a synthesis that was very much his own. 

A less obvious influence is the work of Titian. Some of Turner's sketches based on the Venetian artist (see below) are held in the collections of Tate Britain and date from 1802, when Turner was 27 years old and was making his first visit to the Louvre in Paris. The sketches feature compositional and figure details, and during his visit to that great gallery, Turner had "his eye taken most firmly by Titian" [1] and, especially, his use of colour.

As Vasari wrote, Titian "...well deserved to be considered the most perfect imitator of nature of our times as regards colouring..." [2] Titian was among the first to paint with oils on canvas, rather than board, and the palette available to him in Venice not only allowed the portrayal of the splendid colours of clothing popular in Venice at the time, but other effects. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the altarpiece in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. This is what Hugh Honour and John Fleming wrote about this work [3]:

Titian (Tiziano Vecelli, c.1490-1576) was given his first chance to reveal the full force of his artistic energy when he was asked to paint a vast picture of the Assumption of the Virgin for the high altar of S Maria dei Frari [in 1516-1518]. Hitherto, Venetian altarpieces had been intended to be seen to best advantage from the altar steps; their figures were life-size or less and usually set within simulated architecture conceived as an extension of the church. Titian's altarpiece, the largest ever painted in Venice, with heroic-scale figures, was designed to catch the eye of anyone entering the west door of the nave, nearly 100 yards away. 

It is not only the scale of the piece that captures our attention, but the luminosity of the colour enveloping the Virgin. Turner, already impressed by the light quality in Venice, and the magical interaction of land and sea, must have liked the use of bright yellow-white and the ability of the painting to grab the attention from a distance, something that was such a feature of Turner's work. He would have appreciated Titian's showmanship, a quality that he himself enjoyed on Varnishing Days in the Royal Academy. There are many stories about Turner on these occasions, adding dramatic flourishes to some paintings, commenting on the work of other artists, and generally enjoying being one of the centres of attention. We don't know how many of the stories are true [1].

There can be no questioning Turner's genius as an artist and I am moved by many of his paintings and by his feeling for Nature. If I am correct in suggesting that Titian's palette was an influence, we can thank that Venetian Master, alongside all the other influences, for helping to make Turner so inspiring.

[1] James Hamilton (1997) Turner: A Life. London, Hodder and Stoughton.

[2] Giorgio Vasari (2005) Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (translated by Mrs Jonathan Foster). New York, Dover Publication, Inc. [Original from 1550, with a revised Second Edition in 1568]

[3] Hugh Honour and John Fleming (2005) A World History of Art (Seventh Edition). London, Laurence King.