Thursday, December 3, 2009

Manati Walrus Ursine Seal

I was cleaning out a closet today and came across a small collection of cheaply-framed pictures I had hanging on the wall several homes and many years ago. A couple were prints pilfered from old natural history tomes and sold, prematted, at an antiquarian book store. At the time of purchase, it didn't occur to me to wonder exactly where the prints had come from, or to think that it might be a tremendously bad idea to attack old natural history tomes with a razor blade.

The one above I liked because I like aquatic mammals, especially manatees. The renderings are close enough to be recognizable, but inaccurate enough to be a little amusing, which also suggests they were created not from reference to live animals--and thus perhaps not quite so amusing. Rarely does a manatee haul out and snooze on its side, especially on what appears to be an ice floe.

I had no idea where the illustration came from. Plate 36 from something. I did an image search for "manati," which produced endless underwater images of manatees. I skipped walrus and went straight to "ursine seal," and immediately a commercial site popped up that showed the same illustration, but hand-coloured. (The plate number there may not be 36. It's hard to read.) The illustration is described as,

" original hand colored engraving from the English edition of George Louis Leclerc Buffon's Natural History. The hand coloring is original, and the ingraving is over 180 years old.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was a French naturalist, mathematician, biologist, cosmologist and author. Buffon's views influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.

Buffon is best remembered for his great work Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. It included everything known about the natural world up until that date. In it Buffon considered the similarities between humans and apes, and the possibility of a common ancestry."

I'm not sure what this means about my picture, which is on heavy, yellowed paper, foxed in a few spots, and not coloured. Perhaps it is from a later edition of the book, or from a derivative source. Does anyone know the significance of the word "Proof," in the bottom right-hand corner? Could it mean that this copy was never part of a bound book? And what would that mean? How else would it exist?

In any case, it was nice to stumble upon a bit of its history. Thanks again, Google.


Seabrooke said...

These older engravings make such nice wall hangings.

I did a bit of poking around and I think the word "proof" refers to "proof impression", or one of the first impressions made using the engraving and perhaps used by either the printer or the author to make sure things were lined up, not smearing, etc. I don't think they were put into books, except as a collection unto themselves. Because they weren't intended for the books, they weren't coloured. Whether or not yours was actually from such a collection of proofs, or is simply a print, who knows.

Karen said...

That's pretty cool. So Darwin might have had a few prods in the general direction of the origin of species from others, eh? It's kind of like you have a little piece of some missing link there. Can you take it to an antiquarian bookshop in town and get them to check it out? Could be quite the treasure, inaccurate manatee or no.

Hugh said...

Seabrooke, Yes, thanks, that explains it as far as it goes. My copy, whatever it is, was cut on all four sides, to remove it from its source and/or to fit within the mat board.

Karen, I doubt if it is worth much, because whoever I bought it from would have priced it much higher than whatever it was I, as a starving student, paid. I believe that old texts are only really valuable if they are intact. Some purists even prefer them with pages left uncut, which means the book is unreadable. Sort of like keeping your action figures within the original, unopened, packaging.

Elephant's Eye said...

And every so often, university libraries have problems, with people who cut pictures out of books. If it is modern, cheap and freely available - at least the missing page can be replaced with a photocopy. But if it is old and rare - it is ruined. Like the nice people who steal just one, of the 20 volumes.