Monday, 12 March 2012

What Zebra?

The current Tate Britain exhibition “The Romantics” includes “Zebra, Illustration to General History of Quadrupeds, published, 1790”.  But the Tate Zebra is far larger than the book’s, and furthermore it is referred to, slightly oddly, as “Relief Print” rather than ‘wood engraving’.  What is this displayed print?

Consulting Nigel Tattersfield’s recent work [THOMAS BEWICK The Complete Illustrative Work, The British Library, The Bibliographical Society, Oak Knoll Press 3 vols] we find three Zebras. The Zebra of the General History of Quadrupeds 1790  [TB1.1] is accompanied by a text full of “Romantic” flourish: the animal was viewed as “untameable”. A smaller Zebra appears in The Young Reader 1806 [TB2.686.] The Tate’s Zebra however is undoubtedly from Gilbert Pidcock’s Brief Description of the Principal Foreign Animals 1800 (Tattersfield TB2.53) The Zebra is reproduced on p.120 of vol 2 of Tattersfield. We’ve alerted the Tate curators to the slip.

Returning to the exhibition, in the nearby section of “Word and Image” there is alas no Bewick when in fact the combination was pioneered by him in the vignettes.  Those exhibited are sketch notes by Constable and others, which is hardly ‘word and image’ in a finished work of art as in, for example, Bewick’s “This Stone”.

But why is Bewick’s Zebra in an exhibition of Romanticism at all?  Although his position in regard to the movement can be debated, his drawing in the quadrupeds remained more classical.  Is it perhaps because Neo-Romantic artists sometimes included zebras in their work?  The Christopher Wood currently on display in the British Galleries does so, and his animal is close enough to Bewick’s to encourage us to wonder whether he did not copy it from him, especially because of the revived interest in Bewick in Wood’s time.

The Tate Romantics exhibition continues until 3rd June 2012.
Details here http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/romantics/default.shtm


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