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The Paper Zoo

500 Years of Animals in Art

As children, our first encounters with the world’s animals do not arise during expeditions through faraway jungles or on perilous mountain treks. Instead, we meet these creatures between the pages of a book, on the floor of an obliging library. Down through the centuries, illustrated books have served as our paper zoos, both documenting the world’s extraordinary wildlife in exquisite detail and revealing, in hindsight, how our relationship to and understanding of these animals have evolved over time.

In this stunning book, historian of science Charlotte Sleigh draws on the ultimate bibliophile’s menagerie—the collections of the British Library—to present a lavishly illustrated homage to this historical collaboration between art and science. Gathering together a breathtaking range of nature illustrations from manuscripts, prints, drawings, and rare printed books from across the world, Sleigh brings us face to face (or face to tentacle) with images of butterflies, beetles, and spiders, of shells, fish, and coral polyps. Organized into four themed sections—exotic, native, domestic, and paradoxical—the images introduce us to some of the world’s most renowned natural history illustrators, from John James Audubon to Mark Catesby and Ernst Haeckel, as well as to lesser-known artists. In her accompanying text, Sleigh traces the story of the art of natural history from the Renaissance through the great age of exploration and into the nineteenth century, offering insight into the changing connections between the natural and human worlds.

But the story does not end there. From caterpillars to crabs, langurs to dugongs, stick insects to Old English pigs; from the sinuous tail feathers of birds of paradise to the lime-green wings of New Zealand’s enormous flightless parrot, the kakapo; from the crenellated plates of a tortoise’s shell to imagined likenesses of unicorns, mermaids, and dinosaurs, the story continues in this book. It is a Paper Zoo for all time.

256 pages | 250 color plates | 9 1/2 x 11 | © 2017

Art: Art--General Studies

Biological Sciences: Natural History

History: General History

History of Science


“Before the Nature Channel, before camera safaris, even before Audubon, the only way to discover the beasts of foreign lands was through illustrations. In her scholarly and sprightly Paper Zoo, historian of science Sleigh tracks pictures of animals from medieval bestiaries to early twentieth-century school posters. Along the way she uncovers some fascinating stories, like that of Maria Sybilla Merian, who traveled to Suriname in 1699 and experimented with trompe l’oeil, producing the ‘earliest masterpiece of coloured natural history.’ There are plenty of masterpieces here, from gorgeous illustrations of sea anemones and delightful black and white monkeys to ‘borderline animals’ (half-imaginary, half real) like a many-legged stick insect and a ‘Domesticated Female Orang Outang’ wearing a jaunty striped kerchief.”

Ann Landi | Wall Street Journal

“Pictures can be sources of knowledge. Without them, indeed, some studies would be difficult or impossible to pursue. How could you define and describe innumerable types of animals, birds, and insects using words alone? Sleigh, a historian of science, takes zoological illustration as her theme in The Paper Zoo. Some examples are as cute as the title might suggest. Others, such as Robert Hooke’s drawing of a louse clinging to a human hair seen through a microscope in 1665, distinctly less so. But although accuracy, not beauty, was their point, many are nonetheless beautiful.”

Martin Gayford | Spectator, best art books of the year

"Exploring five hundred years of animals in art and featuring the exotic, native, domestic, and paradoxical, Sleigh’s splendid book is alive with marvelous images, accompanied by a superb text."

Eileen Battersby | Irish Times, favourite nonfiction of the year

"One of the top five illustrated books of the year. The Paper Zoo focuses firmly on the planet’s biodiverse past, rummaging through the British Library’s wealth of natural history illustrations spanning five hundred years. Science historian Sleigh leads us through an ark of beasts from the exotic to the ‘paradoxical’, limned by greats of scientific illustration. Robert Hooke’s eighteenth-century microscopic menagerie of drone flies and lice jostle with natural historian John Ray’s Dürer-like renderings of fish from the 1680s. The nineteenth-century art ranges further South; my favourite is an anonymous double portrait of langurs (one black, one white) staring sagely out in mid-snack."

Barbara Kiser | Nature

"[Sleigh] gathers five hundred years' worth of beautiful natural history illustrations to explore the relationship between art and science."

Science News


Barbara J. King | Times Literary Supplement, on Sleigh's "Frog"

“Precise and witty.”

American Scientist, on Sleigh's "Six Legs Better"

“Fascinating. . . . Provocative, complex.”

Times Literary Supplement, on Sleigh's "Six Legs Better"

“Erudite and eloquent.”

P. D. Smith | Guardian, on Sleigh's "Literature and Science"

“Stylish . . . and informative.”

Times, on Sleigh's "Ant"

“Impressive. . . . Illuminating.”

Independent, on Sleigh's "Ant"

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