The Brilliant Colors of the Great Barrier Revealed in a Historic Illustrated Book from 1893

Paul Simon’s famous lyric about every­thing look­ing worse in black and white
is hard­ly a uni­ver­sal truth, but when it comes to William Sav­ille-Kent’s ground­break­ing 1893 book The Great Bar­ri­er Reef of Aus­tralia: its prod­ucts and poten­tial­i­tiesthe asser­tion may have some mer­it.

Sav­ille-Kent, a nat­u­ral­ist whose work in var­i­ous British aquar­i­ums even­tu­al­ly led to a gig rebuild­ing deplet­ed Tas­man­ian oys­ter beds, fell hard for the col­or­ful fish, bêche-de-mer, corals, sponges, tur­tles, and oth­er marine species he encoun­tered in Aus­tralia.

He pho­tographed the Great Bar­ri­er Reef while serv­ing in Queens­land as Com­mis­sion­er of Fish­eries. 48 of his images were pub­lished in the afore­men­tioned book, offer­ing read­ers an unprece­dent­ed arm­chair tour of a coral reef, albeit in black and white.


While Sav­ille-Kent def­i­nite­ly achieved his goal of fur­ther­ing the public’s aware­ness of the reef, he also upstaged him­self by includ­ing 16 col­or lith­o­graphs inspired by his orig­i­nal water­col­ors.

These plates, by Lon­don-based lith­o­g­ra­phers Rid­dle and Couchman—whose work usu­al­ly ran toward por­traits of well-born gen­tle­men—exude a live­ly Seuss­ian appeal.

Saville-Kent’s care­ful­ly cap­tured fish, echin­o­derms, and anemones lit­er­al­ly pale in com­par­i­son to the bright spec­i­mens the lith­o­g­ra­phers, who pre­sum­ably lacked his first­hand expe­ri­ence of the forms they were depict­ing, brought to such vibrant life in the back of the book.

These days, alas, the Great Bar­ri­er Reef resem­bles Sav­ille-Ken­t’s pho­tos more close­ly than those gor­geous lith­o­graphs, the vic­tim of back-to-back bleach­ing events brought on by pol­lu­tion-relat­ed cli­mate change.

Sav­ille-Kent is buried at All Saints Churchin Mil­ford-on-Sea, Hamp­shire, Eng­land. His grave is dec­o­rat­ed with coral.

Browse a dig­i­tal copy of The Great Bar­ri­er Reef of Aus­tralia: its prod­ucts and poten­tial­i­ties here.

via The Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ernst Haeckel’s Sub­lime Draw­ings of Flo­ra and Fau­na: The Beau­ti­ful Sci­en­tif­ic Draw­ings That Influ­enced Europe’s Art Nou­veau Move­ment (1889)

Two Mil­lion Won­drous Nature Illus­tra­tions Put Online by The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library

New Archive Dig­i­tizes 80,000 His­toric Water­col­or Paint­ings, the Medi­um Through Which We Doc­u­ment­ed the World Before Pho­tog­ra­phy

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, June 17 for anoth­er month­ly install­ment of her pub­lic domain-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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