Up to now I’ve looked at Johann Daniel Meyer’s engraving of the Zweyerley Vorstellung des Canarienvogels (Presentation of a pair of canary birds) with a sceptical eye. In Part 3 I am going to look at the evidence that might support Michael Monthofer’s belief that the engraving represents a canary “which one can confidently call a Lizard or at least very Lizard-like”.
My starting point is to consider the challenges that an artist like Meyer would have faced in producing an illustrated book on natural history in the first half of the eighteenth century.
The process of producing coloured prints involved three handicrafts: the original drawing, then the engraving on to a copper plate, and finally the colouring by hand. Only the actual imprint (the transfer of ink on to paper) was mechanised. With each of these stages there was scope for errors to creep in. Even if the original author was dissatisfied with the final proofs, there was little he could do about it without incurring cost and delay. (1)
We also need to be aware that the choice of subjects might have been limited, and those that were available may not have been drawn from life.
Few bird illustrators in the first half of the eighteenth century (and beyond) were field naturalists. Some birds were drawn as live subjects if they could be studied in a cage or an aviary, but otherwise artists were limited to dead birds in the form of skins or stuffed specimens. They could lead to significant fallacies, such as the belief that Birds of Paradise had no legs (2), while stuffed specimens usually looked stiff and lifeless unless the taxidermist was familiar with the bird and had the technical skill to recreate its vivacity.
Preservation techniques were primitive and most of eighteenth century specimens have long since succumbed to insect attack (3). Even a fresh specimen had its limitations, as Christine Jackson noted:
“Alas, illustrating a bird book is not so simple as illustrating a book on flowers, insects, or even fish. Pick a flower, put it in water, and it looks much the same as it did growing in a hedgerow. Pin a dead insect to a board and it will look much the same as it did alive. Kill a bird and you are left with a sad bunch of feathers.” (4)
We should therefore consider the possibility that Meyer’s engraving was based not on live canaries, but on stuffed and mounted specimens. Let’s see what difference it can make. Here is a photograph of a modern clear cap gold (intensive) Lizard canary:
Compare that with a modern stuffed specimen of another clear cap gold cock I acquired many years ago:
They are both shown from more or less the same angle as Meyer’s Lizard-like bird. You can see that the spangles, so well defined in the living bird, have become random and ill defined in the stuffed specimen. They have a passing resemblance to the markings in Meyer’s illustration.
Now let’s compare the stuffed Lizard with the bird on the left of Meyer’s engraving that we saw in Part 2:
The similarity is striking. It suggests that Meyer’s subjects were not a ‘gay’ and a ‘fancy’ canary as Michael suggested (see Part 2), but may have been a pair of ‘fancy birds’ which later became known as the Lizard canary (5).
Further evidence comes in the form of a clear cap gold Lizard canary from 1895 held at the National History Museum at Tring. Its spangles are are irregular, but quite distinct. The feature that stands out, however, is the pattern of the dark spangles that run up the neck. They are much more distinctive than you see in modern Lizards. They are also the only regular markings that we see in Meyer’s engraving . . .
Hein van Grouw photographed the bird for me:
Now let’s look at the most glaring fault in Meyer’s illustration of the two canaries. I am not referring to the finer show points of the Lizard canary, but to their eyes. Neither is in the right position. In the bird on the right the eye is touching the beak, while in the bird on the left the eye is set too far back. We know that Meyer could pay particular attention to the eyes, as we saw in the engraving of the tawny owl in Part 1, so this is a strange anomaly.
Meyer was an accomplished artist and engraver; his patron Christoph Jacob Trew demanded a faithful depiction of his subjects. We see an example of this in the left wing of the bird on the right; one of its primaries has a white tip. It is a typical characteristic of the Lizard canary after it has lost a flight feather.
Can you see the paradox here? On the one hand we have an illustration which contains a glaring error (the eyes), while on the other, we see a refreshingly honest detail (the white tip). Later artists would have corrected both faults because they would have detracted from the ‘ideal’, but Meyer recorded what he saw. The only explanation I can offer is that Meyer had used for his subjects a stuffed pair of ‘fancy birds’ that had been mounted by an unskilled taxidermist.
If so, how did Meyer come to find and draw these birds in Nuremberg? The link is almost certainly his patron, Christop Jacob Trew.
Christop Jacob Trew (1695-1769) was a wealthy and influential man, respected not just in Nuremberg but throughout learned society in Europe. He was a city solicitor, court physician, Count Palatine of the Holy Roman Empire, and had an academic passion for botany and osteology. He was a member of the Royal Society of London, the Berlin Academy, and the Florentine Botanical Society (6). Trew accumulated a huge collection of natural history; his library contained over 3700 volumes now held at the Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg; and we know that many of Meyer’s subjects were drawn from specimens in Trew’s wunderkammer (7). Could a pair of ‘fancy birds’ been amongst them?
There are two routes by which Trew could have obtained them.
The first is by trade. German canaries were exported across Europe from the seventeenth century onwards (8). The birds were valued not so much for their appearance, but for their song, which had been cultivated to mimic the notes of the nightingale. Thanks to research by Michael Monthofer, we now know that there was also a trade in the reverse direction. According to Adam Lonicerus’ book on herbs (1737): “The little birds are of the Siskin kind, brought from England and called canaries, which sing very well and learn completely natural songs, and when sung are sold for big money” (9). It is possible that ‘fancy birds’ were also exported and that Trew acquired them by chance.
The second route is more direct, and therefore more likely. One of Trew’s professional roles was as personal physician to the Markgraf von Brandenburg-Ansbach (Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach), who was none other than the brother of Queen Caroline (1683-1737), the wife of George II of Great Britain. (10)
It was common for aristocrats to send exotic birds and animals as presents to one another. Did Caroline send some ‘fancy birds’ to her brother the Margrave? They would have been a uniquely English gift, and Caroline was renowned for her enthusiasm for the culture and history of her adopted nation (11). Did Trew see the birds at the Markgrafenschloß (Margrave’s Palace)? Did he eventually acquire them for his wunderkammer, and have them mounted, before asking Meyer to depict them years later?
The connection with Queen Caroline is a plausible, but unproven, hypothesis. It adds a regal lustre to the mystery, but is not crucial to solving it. The likelihood that Meyer based his illustration on a pair of stuffed canaries still stands, regardless of the source of the birds. It is the only explanation that accounts for both the strengths and weaknesses of the Zweyerley Vorstellung des Canarienvogels.
Why, then, did plate XXXII depict English ‘fancy birds’ rather than a pair of German canaries? All the other German illustrations I have seen from this period feature either clear lipochrome birds or canaries with crests. I detect Trew’s influence; he was the person who called the shots.
Trew had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1746, just two years before the publication of the Angenehmer und nützlichem Zeit-vertreib. It was a huge honour, the eighteenth century equivalent of being being awarded a Nobel prize for science (12). We can imagine that Trew was rather proud to be acclaimed by a country that was not only ruled by a German-born king, but was also emerging as a world power. An illustration of highly prized English canaries would have been a subtle reminder of his international reputation and his connections with the highest strata of English society. Meyer’s subscribers would have been curious about these birds and would have been impressed when they discovered their origins. They enhanced Trew’s prestige in a way that German canaries could not.
In his original article, Michael Monthofer made the case that one of Meyer’s canaries was “a Lizard or at least very Lizard-like”. Having weighed the balance of the evidence, I am inclined to go one step further. In my opinion, Meyer’s Zweyerley Vorstellung des Canarienvogels was probably intended to portray not just one, but a pair of English ‘fancy birds’, which we now call Lizards.
I sent a draft of my articles to Michael for comment. It is only fair to record that he still stands by his theory that Meyer’s canaries represent a ‘gay bird’ and a ‘fancy bird’.
- R.L. Wallace complained in the first edition of ‘The Canary Book’ (1875) that the illustration of the London Fancy was “not so life-like as I could have desired, and the wing marking is shown too heavy. Should another edition be called for, a fresh drawing will be substituted”. He had to wait for the second edition (1882) before the plate was replaced with an engraving to his liking.
- The legs were removed by the bird trappers on the assumption that the traders were only interested in the plumage. Even Conrad Gesner was fooled, claiming that ‘this very beautiful bird, which never sits upon the earth or any other thing, is born in Paradise’.
- None of the 1172 bird specimens held in the museum established by Sir Hans Sloane in 1753 (which later became the foundation of the British Museum) are known to have survived. Although the effectiveness of arsenic soap was discovered by Bécoeur in the 1750s, the technique didn’t become widely known until the early 1800s.
- ‘Bird Etchings: The Illustrators and Their Books’, 1655-1855 by Christine Jackson, Cornell University, 1985 (p. 28). Most of my information on early bird illustrations is derived from this book.
- The earliest known reference to the ‘Lizard’ canary was not published until 1825.
- Biographical notes from the Cincinnati Museum Centre website. They are an English translation of the tribute you can see in the engraving of Trew.
- A Wunderkammer, or a cabinet of curiosities as it was known in English, was an exotic collection of almost anything that might excite the imagination or promote connoisseurship. Typically it held specimens of natural history, cultural artefacts, art and antiquities.
- The earliest record of German birds being sold in England was published in 1675.
- The German text states: “Der Zeislein Art seyn die Vögelein, so aus England gebracht und Canarienvögel genennet werden, welche garwohl sin-gen und gantz natürliche Gesänge, so man sie vorsingt, nachlernen und um groß Geld verkauft werden”. Lonicerus gave his name to the genus Lonicera (honeysuckle).
- Caroline (Karoline von Brandenburg-Ansbach) was born in Ansbach but moved to London in 1714 following her marriage to George. Ansbach is less than 30 miles (50Km) from Nuremberg. Her brother, William Frederick, was Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach up to his death in 1723. He was succeeded by his son (Caroline’s nephew) Charles William Frederick, the ‘Wild Margrave’, who still held that position in 1748.
- Caroline was an intelligent, well educated and politically astute queen. She knew the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; corresponded with luminaries such as Voltaire, and was consulted by Prime Minister Robert Walpole. She forged important bonds between the Hanovarian monarchy and English society through her patronage of the arts and sciences in England. Caroline corresponded with members of other royal families including Liselotte, sister-in-law of the French King Louis XIV. They both had wunderkammers; Caroline’s contained a stuffed humming bird.
- Other luminaries of the Royal Society include Liebniz, Sir Issac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein.