|Humanist Essay for February 2013
"Drawin' for Darwin"
The February 12 anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth
provides opportunity to consider the importance of Art
to human civilization. Yes, we will celebrate Darwin's
rigorous investigative method and how his theory of
evolution by natural selection has contributed to our
knowledge in every branch of Science. But, I ask you:
How widely would Darwin's research and theory be
understood without the Art - without the many detailed
drawings of the fossils he collected and the illustrations
commissioned by him and his collaborating authors for
The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle? |
The Zoology was edited by Darwin and included five parts, each authored by an expert in a particular field: Richard Owen for Fossil Mammalia, George Robert Waterhouse for Mammalia, John Gould for Birds, Leonard Jenyns for Fish and Thomas Bell for Reptiles. While Darwin and his colleagues came out of a tradition of naturalist-artists, among the authors of The Zoology, only John Gould made his own drawings and paintings. And who made all of those other extraordinary illustrations?
I have been poring over the Darwin Online website, where virtually every page of every Darwin notebook, manuscript and published work has been scanned and cataloged, and there is little credit given to the artists and lithographers who portrayed the physical evidence of Darwin's claim. In some cases, their names appear on the plates, along with those of printers and publishers. The 32 plates in Part I of The Zoology are inscribed with, "G. Scharf del et lithog [drawing and lithography]." But Scharf is not credited on the title page of the volume or even with the List of Plates.
Now consider the descriptive text by Richard Owen for the Toxodon platensis of Plate I and how helpful it would be to have Scharf's drawing at hand. "...The general form of the skull, as seen from above, is pyriform; but viewed sideways, and without the lower jaw, it is semi-ovate; it is depressed, elongate, of considerable breadth, including the span of the zygomatic arches, but becoming rather suddenly contracted anterior to them, the facial part thence growing narrower to near the muzzle, which again slightly expands...." And it goes on. view Plate I
It seems to me that we owe some acknowledgment to those who documented the fossil record and the living record, and conveyed graphically the fundamentals of evolution before the age of digital technology. The litho graphers named were often working from the sketches made by other artists. At least G. Scharf, being both artist and lithographer, lives on alongside Darwin's legacy. In some respects, Scharf himself was a scientist. He received his training at the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in Munich; and the form of printmaking he practiced, lithography, was the new high-tech process of his day. But what I learned of his career saddened me.
George Johann Scharf (1788 - 1860) completed his schooling in 1810 and traveled Europe in search of commissions. In 1816 he settled in London, where throughout his life he made sketches and watercolors of the city. His primary source of employment was illustration and lithography, but his commission from Charles Darwin proved to be the beginning of his professional decline. Darwin felt that Scharf's price for a series of illustrations of fossil bones from South America was too high. The men had a falling out, after which the artist's commissions began to dry up. Scharf spent his last years struggling to sell his work with little success. But after his death, his wife sold more than a thousand pieces to the British Museum. Accurate, beautiful and evocative, Scharf's paintings and sketches provide a vivid portrait of Victorian London before the invention of photography.
I looked in vain for any decent drawing made by Darwin. He may have been an intellectual giant, but he needed his illustrators. Their visual record remains direct and universal, preserving the essense of his research and his times. In may ways, those drawings have drawn him for us, showing us the world through his eyes as he sought out significant details in organic forms. It is here, in the passionate, probing observation of nature that Science and Art overlap.
Copyright © 2013 Zelda Gatuskin