Peter Menkhorst reviews 'Upside Down World' by Penny Olsen

Upside Down World: Early European Impressions of Australia’s Curious Animals

by Penny Olsen

National Library of Australia, $39.95 pb, 268 pp, 97880642277060

In this age of throwaway digital images it is easy to forget that before the late nineteenth century the only means of conveying a visual image of an object or place was by drawing its likeness. For this reason, well-funded exploratory expeditions often included an artist whose role was to illustrate new and interesting people, landscapes, geological features, animals and plants. Australian examples include George Raper and John Hunter, officers on the First Fleet. The Baudin Expedition had Charles-Alexandre Lesueur; Mathew Flinders took botanist and artist Robert Brown; and Major Thomas Mitchell was himself a competent sketcher. The Victorian Exploration Expedition (Burke and Wills) included Ludwig Becker, one of our best natural history artists, who died of scurvy in south-west Queensland while a member of the backup Supply Party. Other artists remained in their studios and earned a living by providing illustrations for scientific journals or the popular press based on specimens, living or dead, which had been sent home by the explorers. Among the best museum-based artists who worked on Australian material were Sarah Stone and Frederick Frohawk, neither of whom, as far as I know, ever set foot in this country.

In this lavish production, zoologist Penny Olsen uses the art collection of the National Library of Australia to explore the discovery of Australia’s extraordinary animals and our changing attitudes towards them. The sociology of our attitudes to Australia’s wildlife is a fascinating field that deserves more attention. It helps us to understand past and present attitudes towards wildlife conservation in the nation with the worst extinction record of all in recent times.

For much of the nineteenth century, Australia’s natural history, particularly its strange animals, enjoyed a high profile in European society. New discoveries created headlines, and the upper classes liked to show off their collections of live or stuffed Australian wildlife (William Morris, for instance, kept a wombat as a pet). Words such as ‘extraordinary’, ‘remarkable’, ‘curious’ and ‘singular’ were ‘worn out in their application to Australian animals’. However, this acknowledgment of the differences between the fauna of Australia and the Old World did not necessarily translate into a caring attitude. Olsen makes the point that one clear theme to emerge from her historical research is that ‘as a nation we have a long history of undervaluing our wildlife in its wild state’. The Tasmanian Devil and Thylacine provide excellent cases in point. Both species were irrationally demonised by settlers, scientists and artists, many of whom had never actually seen the animals. Although having a fairly standard set of carnivore teeth, little different from those of the settler’s kangaroo dogs, these creatures were described as bearing ‘fangs’; both were stupid, hideous and ungainly, and not even swift of foot – no redeeming features at all. This attitude towards the Thylacine took almost universal hold in Tasmania and led directly to its unremitting persecution and eventual extinction.

The collection of natural history art held by the National Library is certainly impressive in its time span and for the the range of styles and competencies represented therein. It provided most of the original illustrations included in the book; others are reproduced from printed works, including books, magazines and scientific journals. Olsen presents an eclectic selection of these works, stating openly in the preface that ‘the selection process was undeniably biased’ and that she looked for ‘newly discovered animals that were bizarrely or badly illustrated; described eccentrically or exaggeratedly; and/or with stories to tell’. While this approach provides entertaining reading, it does reduce the depth of analysis of what these works tell us about Australian society at the time, and how art has influenced public attitudes towards wildlife. Nonetheless, the book provides a sweeping survey of historical wildlife art in Australia. Most of Australia’s iconic fauna species are included, as are examples of the work of almost all the important wildlife artists who worked on Australian animals before the twentieth century.

Beginning with a short introduction that summarises the historical context within which Europeans discovered our animals, the book comprises thirty-nine short essays, each concerned with European responses to the discovery and gradual understanding of a particular species. Each essay is illustrated with high-quality reproductions of appropriate historical drawings and quirky quotations from the explorers, scientists and naturalists who first brought the species to European attention. Much use is made of text boxes to highlight particularly memorable quotes.

Covering all five classes of vertebrate animal – fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals – the book includes all our high-profile, weird and wonderful species (platypus, koala, kangaroos, Black Swan, Superb Lyrebird, Laughing Kookaburra, bowerbirds, Frilled Lizard) plus much more. Less well-known beasts include the Marsupial Mole, Greater Stick-nest Rat, Mitchell’s Hopping Mouse, Owlet-nightjar, Australian Lungfish, mud-skippers and seadragons. Brief biographies of the key observers, artists and scientists are presented, as are details of each of the featured works of art. The extensive bibliography is testament to Olsen’s thorough research, and provides a very useful guide to the literature of Australian historical zoology.

The art featured in this book varies from highly expert and polished works by such luminaries as Ferdinand Bauer, Becker, Frohawk, John Gould and his collaborators Elizabeth Gould and H.C. Richter, Gerhard Krefft, John Lewin, Harriet Scott, Stone and Joseph Wolf, to magazine and newspaper illustrators, whose interpretations are sometimes fanciful, even ludicrous (for example, the illustration of a kangaroo hunt showing one brave hunter dismounted and grasping a big, upright buck by the tail while his mounted mate clubs it). Other artists, clearly unfamiliar with their subjects, struggle with scale and form, for example in Cassell’s Natural History (1883) a Thylacine (weight up to thirty-five kilograms) is depicted attacking a Platypus (weight up to two kilograms), which is larger than itself.

This book nicely fulfils two roles. It is a beautiful production and can be perused at length for the pleasure of appreciating natural history art and fine book production. It also has a scholarly role in elucidating the history of discovery of Australia’s fauna: an appreciation of the social context in which these discoveries took place and the social mores that moulded European responses to the animals. And it is exceptionally good value for money.

Peter Menkhorst

Peter Menkhorst

Peter Menkhorst is a Melbourne-based zoologist specialising in mammal and bird ecology and conservation, particularly in devising recovery strategies for threatened species, and guiding their implementation. He has published extensively in both scientific and popular literature, including Mammals of Victoria (1995), a definitive book on the subject, and A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia (2001, now in its third edition). Peter is currently part of a team preparing a new field guide to Australian birds for CSIRO Publishing.

Published in October 2010 no. 325

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