European studies blog

43 posts categorized "Animals"

18 December 2018

Russian cats 3: Muri in Search of his Kingdom

Although this cat was created by a Russian author who made him live in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, this is a universal cat, because what can be a more cat-like name than Muri? Muri, invented by Ilia Boiashov is quintessence of cathood. The title of this book, Put’ Muri, can be translated as ‘Muri’s Way’ or ‘Muri’s Path’. Published in 2007, this is not the first book by Ilia Boiashov, but it is the one that brought the author the National Best-seller award.

Put Muri
Ilia Boiashov, Put’ Muri (St Petersburg, 2007) YF.2008.a.8579

The publisher marketed Boiashov as “Russian Kusturica”, probably because of the Yugoslav and cats connections. I would also say that this book will probably appeal to Paulo Coelho’s fans.

The story is a classic example of a philosophical and allegorical travel novel. We first meet Muri as a young imprudent cat from a Bosnian village who thinks that he is a master of the world (or at least the house, the garden, the barn and the storehouses) and the universe revolves around him. As his peaceful life comes to an abrupt end due to the war, the cat starts its quest for “his armchair and warm blanket”. Muri travels around Europe in search for his owners, or rather his servants in his own view, a family of father, mother and two children. On his way Muri, as prescribed by the genre, meets other characters – people, sprites, and animals – who are either on the move too or static. Unlike other travel stories this one is not interested in the characters as such, but in their destiny.

Apart from Muri and the characters that he meets, there are quite a few other stories illustrating different scenarios of personal paths in life. A sheikh makes several attempts to circle around the planet in a small plane; a whale travels around oceans; a Serbian driver is on his way to his dream home. All the stories are framed by an academic argument between two rival groups of scholars divided by their attitude to the philosophical concept of movement and their views whether animals are capable of conscious decisions. While the philosophers debate the question of Super-significance of the True Being, Muri circles around Europe and through Austria, Belarus, Russia and Finland finally reaching Goteborg, where his universe has been preserved by his Bosnian family who are staying in a barrack for refugees in the outskirts of the city. Neither Muri, nor his servants-masters are surprised to see each other. Muri takes his milk as given and goes to sleep planning to explore this new kingdom tomorrow.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

07 December 2018

Russian Cats 2: The Hermitage Cats

I wonder whether you were suitably confused by the first post about Russian cats that didn’t make it to the British Library exhibition Cats on the Page. Now, I want to tell you a story about more Russian cats on the page. No, I’ll start again: they are not all quite Russian, but they live in Russia. And they do not live quite on the page or in libraries, because the heroes of this blog live in museums. To be precise, in one particularly important and beautiful museum – the Hermitage in St Petersburg. In 2009, curators who work in the Hermitage, published a book about the cats in their collection – cats on canvas, cats on lithographs and prints, in other words, all drawn, painted, photographed and sculptured cats.

Image 1
Cover of N. Gol’, M.Khaltunen, Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe (St Petersburg, 2009) YF.2011.a.360.

The book tells how cats were sacred in Ancient Egypt and how cats’ lives were worth more than human lives. Readers would also learn how Ancient Greeks smuggled cats in amphorae and how having a cat as a pet was a sign of wealth in the antiquity.

Image 2
Fragment of a red-figure vase, South of Italy, 4th century B.C., reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe
.

In mediaeval and early modern Europe cats were believed to possess demonic power and attributes. But later cats became just naughty. For example, they were portrayed numerously by a Flemish painter Frans Snyders to animate his game still lifes.

Image 3
Detail (above) from Frans Snyders, Cook at a Kitchen Table with Dead Game, 1634-37 (below), reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe

Image 3a

Cats in China are believed to be descended from the Sacred Tiger. While the Tiger was busy safeguarding good men by protecting them from evil, he found it very difficult to maintain his responsibility to protect fields from rodents. Once, accidently touched by a mouse, escaping from him, he sneezed a cat out of his nostril and thus – delegated his responsibilities.

Image 4
This Chinese picture from the Hermitage collections (late 19th/early 20th century) shows cats scaring mice who are enjoying a wedding procession. Reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

Cute Japanese okimono of waving cats bring luck. Legend has it that one poor woman said goodbye to her cat because she could not feed it any more. The loyal cat, instead, gave her a good advice to make a clay figurine of him waving his paw. And so she did! And her figurine sold well. And so were more figurines. So we can conclude: always listen to your cat and do what he says.

Image 5
 Okimono and netsuke from the Hermitage collections. Reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

The first cats came to the Old Rus’ and Muscovy in the 13th century and for the next 200 years remained an expensive curiosity. Since then cats in Russian folklore have occupied their place next to babies’ cots mewing lullabies, as ‘pioneers’ first entering newly built houses and showing the best and the worst corners, and in the kitchen forecasting the weather: curled-up cats mean frost the next day, while stretching cats predict a nice day ahead and pleasant visitors. And of course, like in many other countries, they are in confrontation with mice. One of the most popular stories presented on cheap prints sold for home decoration in the 19th century, shows a funeral procession where mice are taking their cat neighbour to the cemetery. We are still not quite sure whether the cat is dead or alive. We can treat this story as we feel fair and depending where our sympathies lie: the cat is trying to give the bothersome mice a lesson, pretending to be dead and then suddenly scaring them away (or worse, if you like!), or being naughty and greedy he indeed had fed on mice and died of surfeit (awful!).

Image 6
Russian popular print (lubok) showing mice burying a cat 
(1879), reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

And, of course, I don’t need to remind you about the pussy-cat who visited the Queen.  Some lucky Russian cats not only visited Tsars and Tsarinas, but were courtiers. The book tells us about the rules how palace cats were catered for. Catherine the Great imposed people’s social structure on cats, who were divided into two uneven categories: general palace cats (business class) and room cats (first class).

Image 7
Dasha Chernova made this picture when she was 8 years old. Reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

 

Image 8
These well-fed cats eating asparagus in a palace garden came to Russia from France on Princess’s Dagmar of Denmark’s fan and settled down in the Winter Palace among other things that belonged to Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia.

The last chapter of this book is devoted to the cats who live in the Hermitage now. If you are to travel to St Petersburg and visit the Hermitage, say hello to Ksiusha, Dasha, Wonderful Prince, Vas’ka, Timur, Tishka, Katya, Lana, Vlada, Lera, Matilda, Liutik and Van Dyck.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

04 December 2018

(Not?) Petrarch’s Cat

The last home of the poet and humanist Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374) in the small Northern Italian town of Arquà became a place of literary pilgrimage and tourism early on. Successive 16th-century owners of the house emphasized its connection with Petrarch, among other things by commissioning frescoes depicting his life and works, and welcomed travellers to see the home of the great man.

Travel accounts from the late 16th century onwards describe the house and its various artefacts associated with the poet. Alongside the things one would expect to see in such a place – Petrarch’s chair, the cupboard where he kept his books and so on – the accounts also mention the rather ghoulish exhibit of a mummified cat. In a mock epitaph inscribed beneath its body, the cat claims to have been dearer to the poet even than his beloved muse Laura because, while Laura inspired Petrarch’s verses, the cat ensured their survival by protecting the manuscripts from the gnawing teeth of mice.

Engraving of the memorial to Petrarch's cat with the mummified cat and inscription
The mummified cat, with epitaph, from Stephen Weston, Petrarchiana, or, Additions to the Visit to Vaucluse... 2nd edition (London, 1822) 1048.k.17.(2.)

The French traveller Nicholas Audebert (whose account is preserved in the British Library, Lansdowne MS 720) visited the house in 1575 and was told that the cat had belonged to Petrarch and used to accompany him everywhere. Accounts by Fynes Moryson and Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, published in 1617 and 1623 respectively, also mentioned the feline monument, and in 1635 the first picture of it appeared in a work by Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, Petrarcha Redivivus. Here the poor creature is exposed on a plinth, rather than in a niche with the epitaph beneath as it is more usually shown and described, although Tomasini does reproduce the text of the epitaph.

Engraving of the mummified cat on a plinth
The cat as reproduced in Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, Petrarcha Redivivus, integram poetæ celeberrimi vitam iconibus ære celatis exhibens. Accessit nobilissimae foeminae, Lauræ brevis historia. (Padua, 1635) 137.d.18

The cat continued to capture the attention of visitors. Byron – himself a keeper of many pets – was apparently delighted by it and the German poet August von Platen dedicated an epigram to it. The monument still features in modern tourists’ TripAdvisor reviews. The story of Petrarch’s beloved pet, the faithful companion and comfort of his last years has appealed to generations of cat-lovers. 

Illustration of Petrarch writing by candlelight with a cat at his feet
Petrarch and his cat, engraving by Jacob Wilhalm Mechau from a drawing by Christian Gottlieb Geyser, in vol. 4 of Johann Georg Zimmermann, Ueber die Einsamkeit (Leipzig, 1785)  8409.bbb.8.

However, there is one drawback to this touching tale: we have no evidence that Petrarch ever owned a cat. Although he makes some mention of his dogs in his letters, and a 2-line epitaph to a little dog called Zabot is attributed to him, there is nothing about any cat. This is surely particularly surprising if he owned a cat so dear to him that he chose to commemorate it after its death. Also, both the mummified cat and the inscription are thought to date from the 16th century, long after Petrarch’s death. So how did the association come about?

The most likely theory is that it originates from early depictions of Petrarch in illuminated manuscripts where he is sometimes shown with a small dog (a reference to little Zabot?) and occasionally with a cat. In one manuscript of ca 1420, held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (MS Strozzi 172), a cat is even depicted chasing a mouse in Petrarch’s study, the very job described in the epitaph of his supposed pet. But rather than a realistic depiction of Petrarch’s domestic life and pets, it is more likely that both animals are, in the words of J.B. Trapp, “in some sense a replacement for the lion that legend gave to St Jerome for a companion in his studies.”

Image of St Jerome writing with a lion at his feet
St Jerome and his lion, from the Prayer book of Sigismund of Poland, 1524, Add. 15281 f.3v

Nonetheless, it is credible that familiarity with such images might have inspired the 16th-century owners of Petrarch’s house to invent the story of the poet’s beloved cat. It has even been suggested by the author of the Shaping Sense blog that the monument was set up as a kind of mockery of the cult of literary pilgrimage and literary relics that its creators were simultaneously trying to encourage.

Whatever the truth, the cat’s story continues to flourish, especially in the online world. An internet search brings up both sober discussions of the story’s reliability and fanciful tales about the mutual affection of the animal and its master. Various German websites (such as this one) even attribute to Petrarch the words, “Humanity can be roughly divided into two groups: cat lovers and those who are disadvantaged in life”, and you can buy a variety of tote bags, fridge magnets and the like bearing this decidedly un-Petrarchan saying with its undoubtedly false attribution.

Illustration of Petrarch looking at a portrait of Laura while his cat looks onCaught between his two loves? Petrarch gazes at a picture of Laura while his cat looks on. Engraving by Bartolomeo Crivellari from a drawing by Gaetani Gherardo Zompini, from vol. 2 of Le Rime del Petrarca brevemente esposte per L. Castelvetro ... (Venice, 1756) 638.i.7.

Whether or not Petrarch truly owned and loved a cat, we can safely say he would have been astounded by the physical and literary afterlife of such a creature.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

Fynes Moryson, An Itenerary written by Fynes Moryson, Gent … Containing his ten yeeres travell through the twelve dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Sweitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Italy, Turky, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1617) 214.e.16.

Niccolò Franco and Ercole Giovannini, Li duo Petrarchisti dialoghi di Nicolo Franco, e di Ercole Giovannini … (Venice, 1623) 1161.d.10.

J. B. Trapp, ‘Petrarchan Places. An Essay in the Iconography of Commemoration’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 69 (2006), pp. 1-50. Ac.4569/7.

Achim Aurnhammer, Petrarcas Katze: die Geschichte des kätzischen Petrarkismus (Heidelberg, 2005). YF.2007.a.9350

The free British Library exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

27 November 2018

Some Russian Cats

These cats didn’t make it in a tough competition to be displayed at and contextualised within the British Library exhibition Cats on the Page, but they still deserve a couple of nice words.

One of the first cats on the page that any Russian child would see, is an arrogant and conceited fashionista cat who did not allow her young orphaned relatives into her nice luxury house, preferring to entertain a company of servile ‘friends’. Guess what? The house is burnt to the ground the next night and, homeless and miserable, she finds that none of her former companions would want to provide shelter and share food with her. Of course, the kind kittens, who have very little food and live in a tiny cold hut, are generous and happy to help. This teaches the cat to be kind and she becomes a responsible and respectful auntie who takes good care of the kittens and they will take care of her when she is old.

Image 1S.Marshak, Koshkin dom (‘The Cat’s House’) Illustrated by Iu. Vasnetsov (Moscow, 1996) YA.1999.b.278

Fairy-tale cats don’t always act as characters. Some of them are enigmatic story-tellers themselves. Like other most popular cat in Russian literature, created by Alexander Pushkin. He lives in the mysterious land called Lukomor’e, walks up and down the chains fixed on a huge oak tree and mews his stories. One of them, a love story of Ruslan and Liudmila, he mewed to Pushkin himself.

Image 2a Endpapers from A. Pushkin, Ruslan and Liudmila. Illustrated by L.Vladimirskii (Moscow, 1989) YA.1997.b.2434

Actually, some cats are really strange. I would say that all cats are strange, but some cats are stranger than others. Because they are actually dogs. Or they are dogs, who are actually cats. This strange phenomenon was discovered and described by Tim Sobakin (‘sobaka’ is ‘a dog’ in Russian, so he might be a little bit of a cat himself), a contemporary children’s author. His character Shar lives with his master Auntie Solveig, somewhere in Glasgow, but actually in Oslo. You see, they all are quite eccentric, so why should the dog/cat or cat/dog be different? So, the story goes that Shar once climbed a tree as a cat, but while climbing, forgot how to get down, because on the tree he felt like dog. Only a passing fisherman could save Shar, because Shar suddenly felt like a hungry cat chasing fish and remembered how to climb down trees.

It all is getting too confusing, isn’t it, especially if you don’t read Russian? But if you do, it is actually more confusing. These cats can confuse anyone. So, I’ll leave you with this for the time being and come back with more confusing stories about cats on the page with lots of confusing Russian words.

Image 3 T. Sobakin. Sobaka, kotoriaia byla koshkoi. Illustrated by A.Grashin (Moscow, 1995)

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

01 June 2018

Silver Darlings, Icelandic Gold: Herring in the Northern Imagination

It’s been food season for the last 2 months at the British Library and sweeping through the Nordic collections with a gastronomic lens, there is of course only one thing on the menu: herring. The herring has formed the backbone of societies over the ages and, as Jonathan Meades says in his jaunt across the Baltic coast of continental Europe, Magnetic North, the herring’s own backbone has formed an even more literal foundation:

When excavations are made in Flanders for roads and railways, the bones of men slaughtered in the First World War constitute the first stratum that the diggers encounter. Further down are multitudinous herring skeletons. The people of Arras ate between two and three million herrings per year. That’s two to three hundred per every person.

From the material ubiquity of herring springs the idea or symbol of herring; it is not only the most important driver of socio-historical and political in the story of Northern Europe but it also stands for the cultural identity of the North.

Clupea Harengus - Skandinaviens Fiskar
The Herring — Clupea Harengus — in Bengt Fredrik Fries et al. A History of Scandinavian Fishes vol. 2 (Stockholm, 1895), J/7290.k.29
.

Herring has really always been fished, well, ‘since the Mesolithic era but commercial fisheries for these species developed only in the Middle Ages’ (Holm, p. 19). Its abundance in the marine area stretching from the Baltic across the North Sea and to the Atlantic around Iceland made it a vital commodity traded and controlled by various powers across the centuries. Abundance may be an understatement if we take Saxo Grammaticus’s words at face value in the Gesta Danorum, first written around 1204. Writing of the sound between Zealand and Scania, he notes: ‘the whole sound contains such plentiful shoals that sometimes boats striking them have difficulty in rowing clear and no fishing-gear but the hands is needed to take them.’ In fact, one possible etymological root for the word herring is from the Germanic Heer (army, troops) but the etymology of the common name for Clupea harengus is full of red herr… I won’t go there.

Olaus Magnus 152.e.9.
Herring-fishing in Scania, woodcut from Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, (Rome, 1555) 152.e.9.

It goes without saying then that with such a central presence in Northern life the herring is equally abundant in the Northern literary and artistic imagination. A scan of the British Library catalogue reveals a huge number of historical surveys, reports on methods of preservation, regional studies of the impact of fishing, but also such oddities (or not) as an announcement in 1785 by the Swedish Academy pertaining to, in the gloss provided by the BL’s Scandinavian Short-Title Catalogue of works published before 1801, ‘roof slates and herring fisheries’ (British Library, Ac.1070/20), or even the very recent (anti-)comic book by Antti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring, or their graphic novel Lord of Herrings (2017).

Hakala combined
Exhaustive and exhausting jokes about herring in Anti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring ([Great Britain], 2014) YKL.2016.b.5527

Douglas S. Murray’s comprehensive Herring Tales: how the silver darlings shaped human taste and history (London, 2015; DRT ELD.DS.80434) points us in the direction of a museum on the topic, “one of the finest of its kind”, namely the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður on the Northern coast of Iceland, once the bustling centre of herring fishing and processing in the country, the ‘Atlantic Klondike’ of the early 20th century. Murray sees in this unique museum a reminder of “the fact that without herring, Iceland – like so many other places on the edge of Norway, Scotland and elsewhere – would not have possessed a modern society.” The museum itself is fully aware of the historical, literary, artistic, film and musical impact of herring, listing numerous sources that show the expanse of work that sparkles herring-silver.

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - The Herring Worker
The lyrical beauty of ‘Icelandic gold’ in paintings by Gunnlaugur Blöndal. Above: ‘The Herring Worker’ (1934); below: ‘Herring Packers’ (1935-1940), reproduced in Gunnlaugur Blöndal (Reykjavik, 1963), Cup.20.w.13

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - Herring Packers

A three-volume history of herring in Iceland, Silfur hafsins: gull ĺslands: síldarsaga ĺslendiga (‘Silver of the sea: Iceland’s gold: the history of herring in Iceland’; Reykjavik, 2007; YF.2014.b.1514) has appeared in the last decade, adorned with epigraphs by the great Nobel Prize winner and herring champion Halldór Laxness. All three epigraphs are from Laxness’s 1972 Guðsgjafaþula (Reykjavik, 1972; X.989/30910.), which loosely translates as ‘The Song of God’s Gifts’—the book has not been translated into English. “God’s gifts” is another euphemism for the now not-so-humble herring and Laxness does not shy away from elevating them to an object of the aesthetic sublime:

‘Norðurlandssíldin er aðalborin skepna bæði að fegurð og vitsmunum, kanski það dásamlegasta sem guð hefur skapað.’
[The Scandinavian herring is a creature noble-born to beauty and wisdom, perhaps the most wonderful thing God has created]

And,

‘… þá munu margir men tala að þessi fagri fiskur hafi verið sannkölluð dýrðargjöf, já ein sú mesta sem himnafaðirinn hefur gefið þessari þjóð.’
[… then many will say that this beautiful fish has been the true glory, yes, one of the greatest things the Heavenly Father has given this nation.]

Guðsgjafaþula, about the fate of a fishing community who have entrusted their lot to a brilliant herring speculator, took as its source material the first history of herring in Iceland written by Matthías Þórdarson from Móar in 1934. The latter was the great-grandfather of contemporary Icelandic great, Sjón, who in turn used his ancestor as a model for the protagonist of the novel Argóarflísin (‘The Whispering Muse’; Reykjavik, 2005;YF.2007.a.24658). In Sjón’s novel we are introduced to Valdimar Haraldsson, who in 1933 published Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, immediately evoking Laxness and Þórdarson before him. One of Haraldsson’s early articles from his journal Fisk og Kultur, to which he refers at length at the beginning, espouses the link between fish consumption and Nordic racial superiority:

It is our belief that the Nordic race, which has fished off the maritime coast for countless generations and thus enjoyed a staple diet of seafood, owes its physical and intellectual prowess above all to this type of nutrition, and that the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean.

The triumphal racialist rhetoric is antiquated and self-undermining in the context of the novel but the year of publication of Haraldsson’s memoirs is not lost on the reader. God’s gifts make for a chosen people it seems. At the same time, the maritime Nordic people is deliberately drawn in stark contrast to the ‘blood and soil’ rhetoric of continental fascism. Sjón’s novel is not the only place where fish and racial politics are brought into conversation. For the other notable example, we need to travel back to the Baltic and the shores of Danzig as imagined and lived by Günter Grass. But that is for another post…

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator, Germanic Collections

References and further reading:

Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes (vol. 1) [translated from the Latin by Peter Fisher] (Cambridge; New Jersey, 1979) X.800/28439

 Halldór Laxness, Brekkukotsannáll (Reykavik, 1957/1973) X.909/37610. (English translation by Magnus Magnusson, The Fish can Sing (London, 2000) H.2000/2872)

Sjón, The Whispering Muse [translated by Victoria Cribb] (London, 2012) H.2013/.5955

James H. Barrett and David C. Orton (eds.), Cod and Herring: The archaeology and history of medieval seas fishing (Oxford; Philadelphia, 2016), YC.2017.b.2914; especially the essay by Paul Holm, ‘Commercial Sea Fisheries in the Baltic Region c. AD 1000-1600’ 

 

16 March 2018

The Russian Love Affair with the Arabian Horse

The title does not refer to the mythical indiscretions of Catherine the Great, although she indeed kept a number of Arabian horses, but to the enthusiasm which many famous Russian equestrians and breeders have had for the type.

A dappled Arabian horseAn Arabian from an album of characteristic horse breeds of the USSR, 1953. S. V. Afanas’ev, Al’bom porod loshadei SSSR (Moscow, 1953). Cup.1253.dd.28.

Among the British Library’s collections, one book in particular illustrates the aristocratic infatuation with the Arabian. Prince A. G. Shcherbatov and Count S. A. Stroganov’s Kniga ob Arabskoi Loshadi (Saint Petersburg, 1900; 7293.l.33.) combines an overview of the breed with an account of the authors’ journey to what is now Syria, purchasing stallions for breeding back in the Russian Empire. It was translated into English as The Arabian Horse: A Survey, which the Library also holds (London, 1989; YK.1990.b.3731).

Book cover with a desert scene and a Bedouin mounted on a horse in the foreground

Above:  The lavish cover to Shcherbatov and Stroganov’s book. Below: A mare called Latifa, bought by Stroganov in Damascus in 1895.

Photograph of an Arabian horse

Shcherbatov and Stroganov championed the Arabian against the English Thoroughbred, another popular breed. They considered the Thoroughbred inferior, as it had emerged during a great confusion of equine bloodlines after the English Civil War. Cromwell’s revolution had led to the destruction of stud books and heavy loss of stallions – ‘it turned out to be impossible to reconstitute the pedigrees of the surviving animals’.

By contrast, Bedouin traditions ensured no confusion of bloodlines: ‘Our belief in the pure blood of the Arabian horse stems above all from the importance which the Arabs in horse-breeding attach to blood’. The purity of the Arabian appealed to principles close to the hearts of Russia’s ruling classes, who meticulously traced their own genealogies as well as those of their animals.

Shcherbatov and Stroganov argued that the increasing encroachment of the railway and the disruption of traditional Bedouin ways of life, such as the shift in warfare to the use of rifles from the back of camels rather than lances on horseback, brought the future of this unspoiled breed into question in its native homeland.

It fell to Russia to ensure the preservation of the Arabian’s pure bloodline, for Russia alone remained true to the aristocratic conception of an ideal purity of blood within a perceived sea of international vulgarity. In its turn, they thought, only the pure-blooded Arabian could help breed horses to out-compete the constitutional monarchies and democratic republics in equestrian sports and on the battlefield.

By 1900, the Arabian had already clearly proved its worth for improving the Empire’s stock. In the late 18th century, an Arabian stallion named Smetanka had been used as the basis for one of Russia’s best known breeds – the Orlov trotter.

A chestnut 'Orlov Trotter' horse An Orlov trotter from the album of Soviet horses.

The project to develop a Russian trotting horse had been taken up by Count Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov-Chesmensky, in his retirement after an eventful military career. Orlov had been a central player during the 1762 coup which secured the throne for Catherine the Great, and was rumoured to have personally assassinated the deposed Tsar Peter III. Through his rigorous and experimental breeding programme, the Orlov trotter emerged as one of the leading horses for harness racing and other sporting disciplines of the 19th century.

Portrait of Count Aleksei Orlov-Chesmensky in military uniformAbove: A portrait of Count Aleksei Orlov-Chesmensky from Sergy Dmitrievich Sheremetev, Alekhan (Saint Petersburg, 1898). 09603.dd.13. Below: Tolstoy based his 1886 work Kholstomer on the life of the Orlov trotter Muzhik I, born in 1805. Leo Tolstoy, Kholstomer (Moscow, 1951). YF.2011.b.1596.

Cover of  a 1951 edition of 'Kholstomer' with an inset picture of a horse

According to the coaching expert Andreas Nemitz, wealthy Russians typically used Orlov trotters as the centre of a troika to pull their droshkys, flanked by two gallopers. Captain M. H. Haynes, a British observer of Russia’s equine culture at the end of the 19th century, wrote that Orlov trotters ‘admirably suit the requirements of fashionable Russians, who love to go as fast as their coachmen can drive them, even over the roughest cobble stone pavement, which of course does not suit the long fetlocks’.

An open carriage drawn by a pair of Orlov Trotters A pair of Orlov trotters in harness from Capt. M. H. Haynes, Among Horses in Russia (London, 1900). 07293.i.46.

Russia’s Arabian and Orlov trotter populations declined sharply during the 20th century, harmed by the wars and social upheavals of this time. In 1997, enthusiasts founded the International Committee for the Protection of the Orlov Trotter to secure the future of the breed.

Despite the development of more competitive breeds since its heyday, the Orlov trotter is still well loved by enthusiasts and amateurs alike. As Sherbatov and Stroganov wrote in 1900: ‘One has only to glance at the Orlov-type trotters … to recognise immediately in the proudly-arched neck, the bright, prominent eye, the thin skin, the silky mane, the high-soaring tail and the overall nobility of their bearing, the Arabian blood infused only once, more than a century ago’.

A dappled Orlov trotterAbove: An Orlov trotter, image from Wikimedia Commons. Below: 
 the Orlov trotter in action, image from Wikimedia Commons

An Orlov Trotter in a trotting race

Mike Carey, Eastern European Curator.

References

‘A Russian History’, The Arabian Magazine 29.5.2013 

Vsevolod A. Nikolaev & Albert Parry, The Loves of Catherine the Great (New York, 1982). 83/10566.

Andreas Nemitz, ‘Traditions and Styles in the Way of Driving Horses Part One’, The Carriage Journal 36, 4 (Spring, 1999), 152-4. P.P.8003.qn.

‘Orlov Trotter’, International Museum of the Horse (2018) [online] available at http://www.imh.org/exhibits/online/breeds-of-the-world/europe/orlov-trotter/ 

 

 

09 February 2018

Maria Prymachenko’s fantastic world of flowers and animals

Among the outstanding figures of 20th-century Ukrainian culture Maria Prymachenko (1909-97), the Honoured Artist of Ukraine and winner of the Shevchenko National Prize, occupies one of the highest places. Her name belongs to the line of outstanding artists of naïve art, such as Henri Rousseau, Niko Pirosmanishvili, Ivan Generalic and Nykyfor Drovniak. 

Maria Prymachenko devoted nearly 60 years to her beloved occupation, painting. Her works are spread among Ukrainian museums and private collections. The largest part of her legacy, nearly 650 works, dating from 1936 to 1987, is kept in the collection of the National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Applied Art in Kyiv.

Photograph of Maria Prymachenko in 1936 wearing a traditional Ukrainian embroidered blouse
Maria Prymachenko in 1936. Reproduced in Mariia Pryimachenko. Al'bom (Kyiv, 1994) YA.1997.a.1106.
  

Maria Prymachenko was born in the Kyiv region into a peasant family. In her childhood she suffered from polio, which left her an invalid for the rest of her life. But this severe illness did not break her spirit. Having learned embroidery from her mother during childhood, in the late 1920s and early 1930s the future artist started to work in the Ivankiv Co-operative Embroidery Association, where she brought her own interpretation to traditional ornaments as well as creating her own artistic designs. The Kyivan artist Tetiana Floru saw Maria’s embroideries in the Ivankiv market, and in 1935 invited the talented girl to work in the Central Experimental Workshop of the Kyiv Museum of Ukrainian Art. Here folk artists from the whole of Ukraine were assembled together for the preparation of the First Republican Folk Art Exhibition, which took place in Kyiv in 1936 (photo of Maria Prymachenko from 1936 above), and was later shown in Moscow and Leningrad. In 1937 some of Prymachenko’s drawings were presented in the International Exhibition in Paris.

Stylised painting of a large bird eating a smaller oneBird of Prey (1936).  Reproduced in  Mariia Pryimachenko. Al'bom 

From the start Maria Prymachenko showed herself to be an artist with a unique world view. In the creation of artistic images in her drawings from the 1930s a decisive role was played by line and by the principles of traditional Ukrainian ornaments, presenting flowers, plants and animals in two-dimensional forms.

Painting of an imaginary beast   Beast (1936) Reproduced in:  Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom.

This period of Maria Prymachenko’s life was brightened by two important events: after several successful operations in Kyiv, she could stand on both legs – and in Kyiv she met her beloved fellow countryman, the Red Army lieutenant Vasyl' Marynchuk. After productive activity in the Workshop, she came home to her native village, Bolotnya. In March 1941 she gave birth to her son Fedir. A few months later Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis. The artist experienced all the horrors of war: her brother Ivan was shot by the Germans, and later her husband also perished. The hard war years were exchanged for post-war poverty, constant work on a collective farm, and bringing up her son. She had neither the time nor the strength for painting. But her intensive artistic energy constantly sought realisation. At the beginning Maria embroidered a lot, and later took up painting again,predominantly small compositions with animals, birds and landscapes on leaves from school sketchbooks.

With time the format of her paintings increased. The white backgrounds of the 1930s works gave place to coloured ones in the 1960s-1980s. At the same time her technique changed: from the transparent watercolours with clear graphic contours of her early works to thick intensive gouache, which gave birth to wonderful full-toned depths of colour. But the world of her images remained unchanged, as well as the virtuosity of line and colour.

Stylised painting of two bears eating honey from a beehive while the bees swarm around themBears in Beegarden (1965).  Reproduced in  Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom

Flowers had a special place in her artistic heritage. Bright, decorative, unusual in shape and colour, they rose to the rank of the miraculous, and joined the aesthetic-philosophical interpretation of relations between human beings and the universe.

Painting of a bowl of poppy-heads

 Poppies (1964) Reproduced in Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom

Images of birds, which for centuries have personified goodness, love, peace, and represent intermediaries between heaven and earth, occupy a significant place in her numerous compositions.

Painting of a peacock-like bird perched among flowers

 Bird (1962) Reproduced in: Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom

Decorative pictures with images of animals and fantastic creatures are a quintessential part of Prymachenko’s art. She impresses us by her talent for the creation of new unique images. Many critics noticed her specific 'philosophy of the good’, which she embodies in images of ‘kind’ beasts and birds (lions, hares, bulls, horses, storks, swallows etc.). In the 1970s an important innovation appeared – on the backs of her drawings she wrote captions, a kind of explanatory proverbs, organically linked to the images.

Cover of 'Dobryi lev Marii Primachenko' with a painting of a lion-like creature and its cub Cover of Grigoriii Ostrovskii, Dobryi lev Marii Primachenko (Moscow, 1990). YA.1993.a.25439

Many articles and albums with reproductions of her works were published, exhibitions held, films were made, coins and postage stamps issued in the independent Ukraine. The magic world of Maria Prymachenko continues to capture the imagination.

Postage stamp with an animal picture by Prymachenko Postage stamp with an animal picture by Prymachenko

 Two postage stamps with fantastic beasts by Maria Prymachenko (From Wikimedia Commons) 

Olena Shestakova, Head of Department, National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Applied Art

Further reading:

Oleksandr Naiden, Mariia Pryimachenko, Ornament prostoru i prostir ornamentu (Kyiv, 2011) YF.2012.a.9431

Oleksandr Naiden, Mariia Pryimachenko 100 (Kyiv, 2009). On order

Derzhavnyi muzei ukrains’koho narodnoho dekoratyvnoho prykladnohio mystestva URSR. Al’bom (Kyiv, 1983) L45/3278

Platon Biletsky, Soviet Ukrainian art. (Kyiv, 1979). X.421/20427

Natalia Brodskaia, Naïve Art. (New York, 2000). LB.31.c.12796.

17 January 2018

Władysław Reymont’s Revolt of the Animals

A recent Europen Studies blog post by Masha Karp examined the publication history of George Orwell’s Animal Farm  in the languages of Eastern Europe. That the book has maintained its canonical status worldwide for over 70 years is proof of its universal truth. But as Orwell sat down to write his tale – a warning against the creeping advance of Soviet Communism based on his growing awareness of its brutal reality – was he aware he was not the first modern writer to use the allegory of an animals’ revolt to capture the mad logic of revolution?

Cover of 'Bunt' with an image if a dog wearing a beret with a red star

Cover of a recent edition Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (Warsaw, 2004) 

The question has been bugging me since I discovered Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (‘Revolt’) when it came out in Poland in 2004. While growing up in communist Poland in the 1970s I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in a samizdat edition, and while well acquainted with the rest of Reymont’s oeuvre, which was compulsory reading at school as well as being widely popular through TV and film adaptations, I never heard – and I’m sure very few in Poland at the time did – of Bunt. The similarity to Animal Farm was obvious. And another striking thing was that both stories are told as cautionary tales. I was very surprised it took the book so long to resurface, especially when its lesson seemed past its sell-by date. But apparently that’s how things are with truths and lessons.

Painting of Reymont standing by the gate of a farm

Władysław Reymont. Portrait by by Jacek Malczewski, painted in 1905 when Reymont was acknowledged as Poland’s foremost novelist, author of The Peasants and The Promised Land, both sweeping panoramas of late 19th-century rural and industrial Poland. (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Bunt is a story of a revolt among farm animals who work for their master and often love him but are spurned, ruthlessly exploited and cruelly beaten in return. The revolt is initially stirred up by the dog Rex who calls on animals to rise against the landlord and follow him to the land of justice and plenty for everyone, a land that lies somewhere in the east. Sadly, the poor beasts, worn out by the never-ending quest, eventually turn against their leader and plead with a gorilla, the nearest they can find to a human, to rule over them.

Of course the two stories are different, both in detail and in tone – one is bleakly tragic the other tragically funny, but the basic idea and the narrative mechanism that delivers the moral point is essentially the same – a parable of human ideals falling victim to animal instincts, a lesson revealing the inherent fault laying at the heart of a revolution, or indeed at the heart of all power and authority, which may change hands even from the oppressors to the oppressed but nevertheless remain the same mechanism of oppression, and there is no escape from it.

Title-page of the first edition of 'Bunt'Title-page of Bunt (Warsaw, 1924). YF.2018.a.342

Originally Bunt appeared in the Polish weekly Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Mic.A.4839-4844) in 1922, and then in book form in 1924, the year of Reymont’s Nobel Prize for Literature, and just before his untimely death at 58. Despite being one of the first literary echoes of the Russian Revolution, it barely registered on the critical circuit. Reymont’s great champion, his German translator Jan Kaczkowski, a Polish diplomat hiding under the pen-name Jean Paul d’Ardeschah, felt the book, being topical as well as universal, deserved a better fate. He managed to place Bunt with a Swiss publisher in 1926 as Die Empörung: eine Geschichte vom Aufstand der Tiere. Later, after being transferred by the Polish Foreign Office to Holland, Kaczkowski instigated and oversaw a Dutch publication in 1928 as De Rebellie. That was the last the world heard of Reymont’s Bunt.

Cover of a German translation of 'Bunt' with an image of a wolf howling at the moon

 Cover of a modern edition of Die Empörung (Frankfurt am Main, 2017). YF.2019.a.24968

For a long while I was combing through Orwell’s biographies looking for ways he might have come into contact with Reymont’s story. Was he familiar with Reymont as a Nobel Prize winner? Could translations of Bunt have passed through his hands while he was working at Booklover’s Corner? Orwell did not speak German or Dutch, and the story was not translated into French, a foreign language Orwell knew – after all he read Zamyatin’s We  in French translation.

Another possibility were his friends who did read German – or Dutch or Polish – who were also interested in Eastern European literature and Russian Revolution. They may have discussed Reymont and brought up the story as part of the revolutionary lore and connected it with Orwell’s interest in fairy tales, which he had apparently developed during his time at BBC, just before he started working on Animal Farm. Could it be his publisher friends, Victor Gollancz or Fredric Warburg? The German-born Tysco Fyvel or the Swiss-born Jon Kimche with whom he worked at the Booklover’s Corner? Or was it Arthur Koestler with whom he discussed extensively how revolutionary logic worked? Perhaps someone – a Pole? – he had met in Spain? Perhaps, but I haven’t found a direct link yet.

And then my detective work suffered an unexpected twist. Discussing it with my friends at the BL one of them told me of another tale about an animals’ revolt, this time Russian, and written years before Bunt – in 1880 in fact! Following the new lead I discovered that Nikolai Kostomarov’s Skotskoi Bunt (‘The Revolt of Farm Animals’) was indeed written in 1880 but published only posthumously in 1917, in the popular magazine Niva, just a few issues before October Revolution consigned it forever to history. How come nobody knew of this story for so long? Could Reymont possibly have known of it and how? Could it be it was in fact Kostomarov’s story that seeped into revolutionary lore and inspired both Reymont and Orwell? It could be. But that’s another story. Or is it? Watch this space.

Wiesiek Powaga, Polish translator.
Wiesek’s most recent translation ‘Inside Red Spain’ by Ksawery Pruszynski, appeared in Pete Ayrton's anthology No pasaran! Writings from the Spanish Civil War (London, 2016; YC.2016.a.6057)

 

21 November 2017

Orwell in Translation

George Orwell’s Animal Farm was first published on 17 August 1945 and on 28 August the Russian scholar and critic Gleb Struve wrote to Orwell to say that he found the book “delightful” and would like to translate it for the benefit of Russians, “who could read the truth about their country only when outside it”. Replying to this letter on 1 September, Orwell wondered “what the procedure is. Are books in Russian published in this country, i.e. from non-official sources?” He told Struve that, at about the same time, he had received a letter from a Pole who wanted to translate the book into Polish. Orwell’s main worry was how to pay his translators, but he said he was “anxious that the book should find its way into other languages. If translations into the Slav languages were made, I shouldn’t want any money out of them myself (The Complete Works of George Orwell (CWGO), vol. 17, pp. 274-5). 

Cover of a Polish translation of Animal Far, showing a pig in military uniform

Cover of Teresa Jelenska’s Polish translation: Zwierzęcy folwark (London, 1947). 012642.pp.100.

The first translation of Animal Farm into a Slavic language – in fact, into any language! – was into Polish. It was made by Teresa Jelenska, the wife of a Polish diplomat, and published at the turn of 1946 and 1947 in London by the League of Poles Abroad.

Teresa Jelenska was also instrumental in putting her son’s friend, a young Polish-born Ukrainian Ihor Szewczenko  in touch with Orwell. Szewczenko, then aged 25, wrote to Orwell in April 1946 immediately after he had read Animal Farm and saw at once, as he put it, “that a translation of the tale into Ukrainian would be of great value to my countrymen” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 72). Szewczenko (who later changed the spelling of his name to Ševčenko, the heading under which his works can be found in the British Library’s catalogue), translated Animal Farm while commuting between Munich, where he lived with his wife and mother-in-law, both Soviet-Ukrainian refugees, and Quackenbrück in the British zone of Germany, where he worked for a Polish newspaper.

A year later, when the translation was ready for publication by the Munich publisher Prometheus, Szewczenko wrote to Orwell again asking him for a preface for the book and Orwell, although he was “frightfully busy”, did indeed write the preface to the Ukrainian edition, which remains his most detailed explanation of his motives for writing the “fairy story”. He was particularly glad to find out from Szewczenko, who published his translation under the pseudonym of Ivan Cherniatynskyi, that his publishers in Munich were the Soviet Ukrainians, who defended the “acquisitions of the October revolution”, but turned against the “counter-revolutionary Bonapartism” of Stalin and the Russian nationalistic exploitation of the Ukrainian people. Orwell was “encouraged to learn that that kind of opposition exists in the USSR” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 73).

Cover of a Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm, showing a pig with a whip and a horse dragging a cartload of stones

Cover of  the Ukrainian translation by ‘Ivan Cherniatynskyi’,  Kolhosp tvaryn: kazka, with an introduction by George Orwell. ([Munich, 1947?]) 12593.f.40.

The first Ukrainian edition was not very lucky. Orwell informed his friend, writer Arthur Koestler on 20 September 1947 (CWGO, vol. 19, pp. 206-7), that “the American authorities in Munich have seized 1500 copies of it and handed them over to the Soviet repatriation people, but it appears 2000 copies got distributed among the DPs (Displaced Persons) first”. In the same letter Orwell told Koestler that he had given Szewczenko his address and added: “I have been saying ever since 1945 that the DPs were a godsent opportunity for breaking down the wall between Russia and the West”. Shortly before that, in his review of James Burnham’s book The Struggle for the World (London, 1947; 8011.ee.32.), he expressed a similar thought even more directly: “one of the most important problems at this moment is to find a way of speaking to the Russian people over the heads of their rulers” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 105).

It was precisely the plan to send Animal Farm into the Soviet Union that made Orwell agree to fund the publication of Gleb Struve’s translation into Russian by the DP publisher Possev. Approached by Possev six months before his death, Orwell immediately supported the idea of publishing the translation in a book form (it had already been serialized in the publisher’s weekly magazine of the same name (no. 7-32, 1949) and smuggling it into the USSR, but he still wanted to know for sure who he was dealing with. “I suppose the editors of this paper are bona fide people and also not Whites?” – he asked his recent acquaintance, a German communist Ruth Fischer in a letter of 15 July 1949 (CWGO, vol. 20, p.146). The first part of his question could easily be confirmed, but it was more complicated with the second. As Orwell had feared Possev, unlike the Ukrainian publishers of Animal Farm, were indeed “Whites”. They enjoyed Orwell’s satire of the Soviet regime, but could not stomach him satirising the church and religion and the role they played in society. That is why – as it became known much later, in the 1980s – they censored Orwell and cut out from Animal Farm two paragraphs describing the role of Moses, the tame raven, who tells the animals about “Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died.”

Title page of a Russian translation of Animal Farm

Title-page of the  Russian translation. Skotskii khutor. ([Frankfurt am Main], 1950). 12654.de.12.

This was of course only the beginning. Eventually Animal Farm was translated into at least 70 languages, including Esperanto, but it is worth stressing that the Slavic languages (Polish, Ukrainian, Russian) were among the first. The French publication appeared later than expected, only in October 1947, because, as Orwell wrote to Koestler in January 1946, “The French publisher, who had signed a contract to translate Animal Farm, has got cold feet and says it is impossible «for political reasons»” (CWGO, vol. 18. p.28) – this no doubt was the result of the 1945 elections in France, when the Communists became the largest party in the French National Assembly. But those whose countries were directly under the Communist rule continued publishing the book abroad – in 1952 Animal Farm came out in Lithuanian and in 1955 in Serbian.

Cover of a  Lithuanian translation of Animal Farm showing an exhausted horse dragging a cart

Cover of the  Lithuanian translation. Gyvulių ūkis. Fantastině apysaka. (London, 1952). X.950/31145

Masha Karp, editor of The Orwell Society Journal and author of a forthcoming  Russian biography of George Orwell

References/Further reading

The Complete Works of George Orwell edited by Peter Davison (London, 2000-2002). Vols. 17 (YC.2001.a.13719), 18 (YC.2001.a.16202), 19 (YC.2002.a.23095) and 20 (YC.2002.a.23177)

Masha Karp. ‘The Raven Vanishes’. The Orwell Society Journal. No. 9, December 2016, pp. 16-19

Ksenya Kiebuzinski. ‘Not Lost in Translation: Orwell’s Animal Farm Among Refugees and Beyond the Iron Curtain’, The Halcyon: Newsletter of the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, no. 59, June 2017.  

07 September 2017

‘The father of evolutionism’: Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

For someone who would be among the first to examine heredity from a scientific viewpoint, the origins of a little boy born in Burgundy on 7 September 7th 1707 were not promising. His father, Benjamin François Leclerc, was a very minor official administering the much-resented gabelle, or salt tax, and his mother Anne-Christine came from a similar background of civil servants. They might have expected that their son, named Georges-Louis after his godfather Blaisot, might follow the family tradition. However, prefiguring the career of Alexander von Humboldt, he grew up to reject the civil service in favour of the far more colourful world of travel, scholarship and natural history. His final break with his heritage was symbolized by his adoption of the name by which he is known to history – Buffon.

Buffon portrait 07209.aa.33
Portrait of Buffon, from  Nouveaux morceaux choisis de Buffon (London, 1827) 07209.aa.33.

Young George-Louis’s life exemplified Perrault’s sage remarks in his Contes about the value of influential godparents. When he was seven his godfather, a wealthy tax-farmer, died without issue and left him a fortune. Despite the family’s sudden elevation (his father bought an estate containing the village of Buffon), there was no thought of raising him in luxury and idleness, and he was sent to study law in Dijon. In 1728 he transferred to Angers to pursue medicine and mathematics, and two years later accompanied the young Duke of Kingston on the Grand Tour through the south of France and into Italy. He made a hasty return to Dijon in 1732, as his mother had died, his father was about to remarry, and he feared that his inheritance might be in jeopardy. Having secured it, he set off for Paris to establish himself as a scientist – but not before buying back the village of Buffon which his father had sold, and whose name he had added to his own.

Mingling with Voltaire and other Parisian intellectuals, Buffon was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1734 in recognition of his achievements in calculus and probability theory. He was also taken up by the Comte de Maurepas, Secretary of State of the Navy and of the Maison du Roi, who was impressed by research which he carried out on timber for shipbuilding. With Maurepas’s help he was appointed to the directorship of the Jardin du Roi in 1739, expanding it by land purchases and the acquisition of numerous botanical and zoological specimens.

Buffon 1149c Kingfishers 2
Kingfisher, from  Buffon’ s Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, nouvelle édition (Paris,  [1798]-1808). 1149.a-e

A true polymath, Buffon cultivated not only exotic species but literary style, and was admitted to the Académie Française in 1753, delivering his Discours sur le style before his fellow Academicians. The work which made his reputation was his 36-volume Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749-88; 971.f.2-9.). It rapidly achieved a wide readership, and as well as several volumes in the original, the British Library holds a number of translations, including The History of Singing Birds (Edinburgh, 1791), in which we find ‘directions for choosing a Canary-Bird, and to know if he be in health’ (readers were advised not to select a German specimen, as they were ‘tender and short-lived’ on account of the ‘suffocating heat of the stoves’ in their native country).

Buffon 1486.d.30 Canaries
Canaries, from the 1791 translation History of  Singing Birds; 1486.e.30

Turning his attention to greater subjects, Buffon commented on the distinctive species to be found in different areas with similar climates, later systematized as Buffon’s Law, and suggested that the many varieties of quadrupeds derived from thirty-eight prototypes, as well as that their development might have been influenced by climate change. Climatic considerations also led him to claim that the mephitic vapours gloomy and forests of the New World caused its denizens (both human and otherwise) to be inferior to their European fellows – despite these tactless remarks, in 1782 he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His theories proved too audacious for the Sorbonne, and he was compelled to retract some of them, including his estimate that the earth was 75,000 years old, and, in his Les époques de la nature (1778), that the solar system had come into being when a comet collided with the sun. At Court, though, his popularity was invincible, and in 1772 Louis XVI made him a count (in compensation for having to withdraw from an undertaking that Buffon’s son, then aged eight, should succeed his father at the Jardin du Roi in the event of Buffon senior’s death).

Buffon 1149c Toucan
Toucan, from Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, nouvelle édition 

Despite concluding that humans and other primates were not closely related, Buffon’s theories bore certain similarities to those of Charles Darwin on the subjects of heredity and the survival of the fittest. He died in 1788, and his posthumous life was as curious as his earlier adventures; his tomb was broken open during the French Revolution, and the only remnant of his body known to survive was his brain, preserved in the statue by Pajou which now stands in the Musée d’histoire naturelle in Paris. However, through his influence on Lamarck, Cuvier and other natural historians of the 18th and 19th centuries, his intellectual legacy and scholarly reputation long outlived his scattered remains.

Susan Halstead, Social Sciences Subject Librarian, Research Services.

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