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.

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