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  • Susan Elaine Jones

It isn't easy being an artist

How many woodcuts can a wood cutter cut if a wood cutter needs to illustrate a natural history encyclopedia?

Okay, so it's a bad pun. But that fits the bad art.

The Zoology Museum library has a copy of the very useful text "Hortus Sanitatis".

Now, I had to admit, I would have difficulty drawing things like drawing dog headed people because I don't have that many examples close to hand. But rabbits? Getting employed as an artist for a natural history encyclopedia that can't draw a rabbit?

Dog headed people, monk fish merman and rabbits
Man playing with dolls

Admittedly, this is an unusual book. The sections include:

  • Herbs

  • Animals

  • Birds

  • Fish

  • Stones

  • Urine

So, okay, the book is from around 1500, whcn knowledge of the natural world revolved around knowing which birds to grind up into a paste as a salve against epilepsy, or whether the patient's urine seemed smelly, colourful, or bewitched, and whatever serious healing work this chap playing with dolls is performing.

Now I'm no good at making woodcuts. Giving the artist his due, he's a bit better when concentrating on the animal a bit closer.

Owls, unimpressed peahen and bears doing a tango

The owl aren't bad - and the mouse even is pretty recognisable. The showy peacock doesn't look too sure of himself, and the one wandering past (peahen? or another peacock not showing off?) has a lovely charm of personality shining through the image. And the fighting bears (that might be werewolves) don't look that committed to hurting each other. Maybe they're really dancing? That one on the left is definitely smiling.

Okay, so I will have to admit that I actually really like this artist's work. And sometimes you just need to take the job, regardless of how bonkers it might be. So if someone comes along and says "can you do me a nice woodcut of things with spiky things?", you say "Sure I can. Please pay me in bread and beer and not urine diagnosis".

Unicorn, chicken kebab and penis eagle

If you want to know more, find a whole copy of the book to browse online here. Someone has used it as a colouring book for extra vib! Look for the fun animals around page 600.

And, befitting the Zoology Museum's star attraction, I'll leave you with ... a whale? This is from next week's book (blog post here) - using the much better artistic technique, giving much more ability to convey lifelike images.

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