Armoured rhinos, kangaroos, fake dragons and knitted taxidermy in Grant Museum's Art of Unknown Animals

By Culture24 Reporter | 04 March 2015

Modern dinosaur toys use outdated imagery, according to new show of mis-represented animals

A photo of a taxidermied animal lying prone on snow
A knitted thylacine pelt. Tasmanian tigers were hunted to extinction in 1936 because of a powerful farming lobby. Artists like Ruth Marshall use the familiar, unchallenging practice of knitting to raise controversial issues like habitat loss and extinction. The movement is called craftivism© Ruth Marshall
German artist Albrecht Dürer’s famous woodcut of an armoured rhino, depicting a mighty specimen dispatched by an Indian sultan to the King of Portugal in 1515, has another elusive element to its tale of cross-culturalism and natural wonder 500 years ago.

Dürer never actually saw the Rhinoceros. The figurehead of the Northern Renaissance based his cut on a letter and sketches, creating on repute – as did George Stubbs, whose painting of a kangaroo became Europe’s first painting of a European animal when it was shown in London in 1773.

Bought by the National Maritime Museum following a public appeal in 2003, the Kongouro from New Holland is part of a chameleonic display of animal representations based purely on artists’ imaginations at the Grant Museum, including a 16th century copy of Dürer’s rhino, medieval accounts of exoticism, fake “dragon” specimens made from dried fish by sailors and knitted craft taxidermy.

“Sometimes they were created from explorers’ written descriptions,” says Dr Chiara Ambrosio, a Science and Technology expert who is one of ten researchers to have contributed to the University College London show.

A photo of a woodcut showing an ancient rhino standing on a cliff clad in armour
Enea Vico, A Rhinoceros (after Albrecht Dürer) (1558). A copy of Dürer's rhino, which was based on a written description. It has fantastical armour and a strange shoulder horn, and became an enduring image of rhinos for European© UCL Art Museum, University College London
“Other artists copied existing drawings but added their own interpretations of those descriptions.

“It is fascinating to see a change in entire worldviews reflected in the way particular images changed over time.”

Curator Jack Ashby says artists are not the only observers to have added creative license to animal portrayals.

“We also see it in the practice of taxidermy, where skins were shipped back to Europe and fleshed-out to recreate the animal based on a few notes,” he points out.

A photo of an oil painting of a kangaroo standing on a hill top
George Stubbs, The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo) (1772). The earliest European painting of an Australian animal. Stubbs, who had never seen a kangaroo, based it on an inflated skin, skull, written descriptions and sketches© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
“It’s also true of modern dinosaur toys, which have been copying outdated images of fossil species for over a century.

“Being able to work with a group of historians, artists and scientists from such a diverse set of disciplines has allowed us to tell so many stories about the topic of animal representations.

“It’s also very exciting to see these incredible objects, like Stubbs’ kangaroo, and Captain Cook’s handwritten voyage accounts, displayed alongside the animal specimens.”

A screening of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and a knit-a-thon are among the alluring accompanying events planned for visitors during the next few months.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

An image of a black and white drawing of a human skeleton standing next to a rhino
Bernhard Siegfried Albinus, from Tabulae scleti et Muscularum Corporis Humani (1747). A very early accurately portrayed rhino, based on observations of the live animal, Clara© Wellcome Library, London
A photo of various small toy dinosaurs in different colours on a bright green surface
Dinosaur and other extinct animal models of varying accuracy. Many of these were produced long after the 19th century view of dinosaurs - as slow moving, tail dragging, lizard-like animals - had been disproved. Yet the traditional image of a dinosaur has proved very hard to dispel© UCL Grant Museum of Zoology
A photo of an illustration showing an elephant next to text
Matthew Paris, From Chronica Maiora (13th Century). An elephant from the same 13th century manuscript, drawn in 1255 after Matthew Paris had seen one in the Tower of London© The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
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