Beautiful & Outlandish Color Illustrations Let Europeans See Exotic Fish for the First Time (1754)

Whether in the tanks into which we gaze at the aquar­i­um or the CGI-inten­sive wildlife-based gagfests at which we gaze in the the­ater, most of us in the 21st cen­tu­ry have seen more than a few fun­ny fish. Eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Euro­peans could­n’t have said the same. The great major­i­ty passed their entire lives with­out so much as a glance at the form of even one live exot­ic crea­ture of the deep, and most of those who have a sense of what such a sight looked like prob­a­bly got it from an illus­tra­tion. But even so, some of the illus­trat­ed fish of the day must have proven unfor­get­table, espe­cial­ly the ones in Louis Renard’s Pois­sons, Ecreviss­es et Crabes.

First pub­lished in 1719 with a sec­ond edi­tion, seen here, in 1754, Renard’s book, whose full title trans­lates to Fish­es, Cray­fish­es, and Crabs, of Diverse Col­ors and Extra­or­di­nary Form, that Are Found Around the Islands of the Moluc­cas and on the Coasts of the South­ern Lands, showed its read­ers, in full col­or for the very first time, crea­tures the likes of which they’d nev­er have had occa­sion even to imag­ine. The book’s 460 hand-col­ored cop­per engrav­ings depict, accord­ing to the Glas­gow Uni­ver­si­ty Library, “415 fish­es, 41 crus­taceans, two stick insects, a dugong and a mer­maid.”

The spec­i­mens in the first part of the book tend toward the real­is­tic, while those of the sec­ond “verge on the sur­re­al,” many of which “bear no sim­i­lar­i­ty to any liv­ing crea­tures,” some of which bear “small human faces, suns, moons and stars” on their flanks and cara­paces, most pos­sessed of col­ors “applied in a rather arbi­trary fash­ion,” though bril­liant­ly so. In the short accom­pa­ny­ing texts, “sev­er­al of the fish” — pre­sum­ably not the mer­maid — “are assessed in terms of their edi­bil­i­ty and are accom­pa­nied by brief recipes.”

Renard him­self, who lived from 1678 to 1746, seems to have had a career as col­or­ful as the fish in his book. “As well as spend­ing some sev­en­teen years as a pub­lish­er and bookdeal­er,” he also “sold med­i­cines, bro­kered Eng­lish bonds and, more intrigu­ing­ly, act­ed as a spy for the British Crown, being employed by Queen Anne, George I and George II.” Far from keep­ing that part of his life a secret, “Renard used his sta­tus as an ‘agent’ to help adver­tise his books. This par­tic­u­lar work is actu­al­ly ded­i­cat­ed to George I while the title-page describes the pub­lish­er as  ‘Louis Renard, Agent de Sa Majesté Bri­tan­nique.’ ”

You can behold more of Pois­sons, Ecreviss­es et Crabes at the Pub­lic Domain Review. “If the illus­tra­tions are breath­tak­ing to us now, with all the hours of David Atten­bor­ough doc­u­men­taries under our belts,” they write, “one can only imag­ine the impact this would have had on a Euro­pean audi­ence of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, to which the exot­ic ocean life of the East would have been vir­tu­al­ly unknown.”

Though received as a respectable sci­en­tif­ic work in its day — and even, as the Glas­gow Uni­ver­si­ty Library puts it, “a prod­uct of the Enlight­en­ment” — the book now stands as an enchant­i­ng trib­ute to the com­bi­na­tion of a lit­tle knowl­edge and a lot of human imag­i­na­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Aberdeen Bes­tiary, One of the Great Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts, Now Dig­i­tized in High Res­o­lu­tion & Made Avail­able Online

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Behold the Mys­te­ri­ous Voyn­ich Man­u­script: The 15th-Cen­tu­ry Text That Lin­guists & Code-Break­ers Can’t Under­stand

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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