The Good Things That Come out of Collisions

跑跑镇

Paopao Zhen / written by Yadong; illustrated by Maikexiaokui. Jinan, China: Ming tian chu ban she, 2015. (Cotsen N-000731)

In a small town named the Run Run Town, everybody likes to run fast. They run and run, and “Wham!”—it is inevitable that they will collide into each other.

So begins The Run Run Town 跑跑镇, a Chinese picture book written by Yadong 亚东 and illustrated by Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (Tomorrow Publishing House, 2015). What happens after every collision is a playful rendition of the idea of “combination,” which, as the author points out in the afterword, is important in everything from the origin of life to written language, human imagination, science discoveries, and inventions. He gives two great examples: atoms combine to form molecules; combinations lead to innovations and the majority of patented inventions.

跑跑镇

跑跑镇

How the porcupine fish got its spikes, explained by a “collision theory.”

Some of the “combinations” in the picture books are whimsically fun. A cactus pot scuttles. A small fish rushes. They collide into each other right around the street corner and, voilà, a porcupine fish appears! A princess collides into a dolphin. Guess what we get? A mermaid! In the Run Run Town, even mountains are restless and don’t like to stay put. When a fire-breathing dragon crashes into a wandering mountain, a volcano is born.

跑跑镇

跑跑镇

How the owl got its night vision, explained by a “collision theory.”

Some combinations are inspired by Chinese language and culture. Why would the collision of a cat and an eagle produce an owl? Because in the Chinese vocabulary, “owl” is “mao tou ying 猫头鹰,” or “cat-headed eagle.” Steamed bread (馒头) and meat balls bump into each other head-on, and delicious steamed buns (包子) are ready to be served. If you are familiar with dim sum, you will appreciate that steamed buns with savory fillings are more popular than plain steamed bread.

跑跑镇

跑跑镇Other combinations are based on science. A blotch of blue and a blotch of yellow rush to each other and merge into a splash of green, reminding us of Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni. A young man and a young woman dash towards each other, and, on the last page of the book, a happy nuclear family of three is born.

跑跑镇 跑跑镇What collisions would you imagine if you are asked to add a picture or two to the book? When I tried to answer the question myself, I was tempted to come up with impressive invention ideas, but could not. So instead I will share cases of combinations I have found elsewhere.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海经, a Chinese classic text that first appeared as early as the fourth century BC, describes mythical beings, gods, and deities. The creatures and stories in the book fascinated young people before children’s literature was intentionally produced in China at the turn of the twentieth century. (Lu Xun 鲁迅, regarded as China’s greatest modern writer, was a famous fan from boyhood.) There is a Chinese version of a “mermaid” in The Classic of Mountains and Seas: residents in a nation called Diren (氐人) are described as having human faces, the bodies of fish, and no feet (Chapter 10). The deity Yingzhao (英招) is another example among the numerous outlandish beings that are imaginatively formed by combining features from familiar species. This deity has a human face, the body of a horse with the stripes of a tiger, and a pair of wings (Chapter 2)—akin to griffins and centaurs found in Western mythology.

Depictions of Diren and Yingzhao in an illustrated edition of The Classic of Mountains and Seas published in the 17th century. (courtesy of the East Asian Library TC368/46.zggk)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling; attributed to Newt Scamander. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001. Purported to be a textbook copy owned by Harry Potter and having been written on by him and his two best friends. (Cotsen 58436)

The ancient method of combination has been used to create “fantastic beasts” from the fourth century BC to the twenty-first century. The Classic of Mountains and Seas and J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, first published in 2001, bear astonishing similarities in both being a descriptive catalog of mythical creatures and strange beings.

A bowtruckle, a niffler, and an occamy in the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), the latest addition to Harry Potter’s wizarding world. Image sources: pottermore.com, thisisinsider.com, buzzfeed.com.

Next time you spot those magical beings on the movie screen, you will be able to reverse engineer them and understand how they come to be—the niffler, which has its eye on glittery objects always; the bowtruckle, whose sharp fingers are good at picking locks; the occamy, which fiercely guards its eggs in pure silver; and many more. Combination is not for imagining fantastic creatures only. Isn’t the briefcase carried by Newt Scamander, the Magizoologist, a cross between Pandora’s box and a magical portal like the wardrobe in Narnia? Credence Barebones, the nervous and scared teenager who obeys an oppressive mother, can find his forebear in Hitchcock’s creation—Norman Bates, the young motel manager who has turned mother’s suppression into an uncontrollable destructive force.

Sources:

Wu, Renchen 吳任臣 (annotator), and Shu Ya 舒雅 (illustrator). Shan Hai Jing Guang Zhu. Shan Hai Jing Tu 山海經廣注.山海經圖. China, between 1667 and 1722.

Yadong 亚东, and Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (illustrator). Paopao Zhen 跑跑镇. Di 1 ban. Jinan: Ming tian chu ban she, 2015.

Acknowledgment

Thanks go to Helen Wang, children’s literature translator, for her generous editing work and feedback to the first draft of this post!

Francis Barlow “A Famous Paynter of Fowle Beastes & Birds”

Animals, birds, and nature… Who doesn’t like them and find them fascinating?  Pretty much all children, as well as illustrators, painters, naturalists.

Wild Lives,” the recent conference at Princeton, explored the intersection of naturalism, art, and science, and focused on how humankind sees and depicts animals and birds in visual terms.  Among the topics explored by speakers were dynamism of representation of animals and birds and the depiction of the “whole animal,” as opposed to a focus on microscopic presentation of detail.

Where Sheep May Safely Graze

Where Sheep May Safely Graze… (plate from Francis Barlow’s Animals of Various Species)

Francis Barlow, a seventeenth-century illustrator and etcher, was not among the subjects discussed at the conference, but looking at Barlow’s work this past week while cataloging a Cotsen Library collection of published plate-books featuring his work, it was easy to think of the conference and reflect on how an illustrator can depict nature, animals, and birds and provide all sorts of insights in the process.  I have to admit I hadn’t known much about Barlow or his work beforehand, but I was astounded by various aspects of his illustrations as I looked through Cotsen’s book and even more interested once I learned more about him.  A contemporary called Barlow “a famous paynter of fowle beastes and birds” (1), not necessarily a term of praise (“foul” beasts not “fowl” and beasts).  More recent writers have termed Barlow: “the central figure of British graphic art of the second half of the seventeenth century” (2) and “the leading illustrative interpreter in England before 1800… the first and one of the best of English animal and bird draftsmen” (3).

Barlow’s notable work also included political commentary prints and illustrations for an edition of Aesop’s Fables that he published himself in 1666.  His Aesop illustrations of course picture animals — the anthropomorphized actors in the fables — and his political prints make use of animals to convey a message. But I’d like to focus on his illustrations in this collection of plate books that feature more “naturalistic” depictions of animals and birds, in which where the illustrations themselves not only depict animals and birds in remarkably dynamic detail but also convey subtle interpretations about the “whole animal” and the workings of nature.

Animals of Various Species

Title page plate: Animals of Various Species

Cotsen’s volume of plates books includes four separate Barlow titles: Animals of Various Species accurately drawn by Francis Barlow, and three other published collections of his plate books: Divers Species of Birds (Parts 1 & 2, separate publications) and Birds of Various Species, both Foreign and English.  These four titles were all been bound together later on, along with two other, slightly later, collections of plate books featuring work by other illustrators: the Book of Horses and the Book of Cattle.  So, while all these individual titles were published and most can be found in other libraries, Cotsen’s volume is a unique, with a number of particular aspects (more on that aspect in a moment…).

“Interpretive illustrations” of birds and animals are evident in all four of Barlow volumes, as we can see on the title-page plates of each of them.

Animals of Various Species

Animals of Various Species

Birds of Various Species

Birds of Various Species

 

 

 

 

 

 

The title plate from Animals of Various Species is shows a highly dramatic scene, not really what we’d expect to introduce a series of illustrations intended to depict different animal species.  Barlow depicts a fox in the process of taking a goose and beginning its escape; in the background, other terrified geese cry out, and a farmer rushes out of her house, one leg over the fence, and broom in hand in an attempt to chase off the fox (too late). The detailing of the animals is impressive, as is the sense of dynamic motion; the fox, farmer’s broom, and larger background goose all lean to the left, enhancing the sense of sweeping movement.  All the figures are in motion — nothing is static.  Take a look at the background detailing too; Barlow provides a snapshot depiction of what a small English farmstead must have looked like. And fear of a fox in the hen-house or one preying on a goose flock would have been a very real fear — and recurrent event — even though it’s the stuff of fairy tales to us now

Barlow’s illustration tells a nuanced story all by itself — no words are really needed!  And apart from the details of this scene, his illustration also suggests a broader vision of “nature red in tooth and claw.”  Even in an apparently bucolic pastoral setting, predator animals hunt and prey.

Detail of eagle's feathers and clawsThe title plate for Birds of Various Species places a top-level predator — the eagle — front and center.  Look at the detailing of the eagle’s feathers and those claws!  And even though the overall arrangement of this scene is an artificial, somewhat static mini-compendium of birds, the eagle’s wings are unfurled, its beak open, and its claws seemingly ready for grasping prey.

Eagles and raptors feature prominently in other Barlow illustrations throughout all four sets and on the title-page plates for Diverse Species of Birds and Birds & Fowles of Various SpeciesCertainly these birds of prey are visually dramatic in a way that would appeal to a naturalist-artist, and they would also presumably have caught the eye of a potential book-buyer in an era before bright book covers or dust-jackets.  But Barlow’s frequent use of birds of prey also suggests something about his own naturalistic interests and overall view of nature, I think.

Birds & Fowles of Various Species (Part 2)

Birds & Fowles of Various Species

Diverse Species of Birds (Part 1)

Diverse Species of Birds

 

 

 

 

 

 

A large eagle in a dynamic pose and a more static hawk and vulture frame the engraved title cartouche of Diverse Species of Birds. Take a closer look at the at the cartouche, though.  It’s a sheep.  In a sense, the illustration summarizes the life of much of the natural animal world: predators take their prey and the scavengers clean up the remains.  The title-plate of Birds & Fowles also features a central raptor and its prey (which at first may look like a log or something else convenient for the hawk to be posed upon).  These images may seem disturbing to us today, but they were really very much a part of everyday life that an Englishman like Barlow would have frequently seen at the time pretty much anywhere outside London or another major city or town.  And it seems likely to me that Barlow used these illustrations to provide a visual commentary on his view of nature.  (And he did use animals in symbolic ways in his political commentary illustrations.)

The body language of the two fancier, crane-like birds in the Various Species illustration is striking too: both turn away, but whether out of fear or disgust at the red-in-tooth-and-claw “animal” instincts of the hawk is hard to say — Barlow does seem to have given them somewhat haughty expressions, an expressiveness seen in other animal illustrations in these sets.

Elk (Animals of Various Species)

rabbitsThe range of Barlow’s vision of the natural world in these four sets of illustrations is striking.  He sometime presents finely-detailed studies of animals in a peaceful settings.  He thus shows us sheep safely grazing in England’s fair and pleasant land.(above), rabbits eating and playing, and a pair of elk at rest.  Take a closer look at the depth of perspective he achieves in these illustrations by picturing animals and things in their natural environments with other animals or figures at various distances in the background, as opposed to the more flat-plane presentation of some contemporaries.

deer-hunted rabbits-huntedBut in other illustrations, Barlow shows these same peaceful animals being attacked by other animals, sometimes as part of the cycle of nature and sometimes at the behest of humans, as shown in two separate illustrations of hunting dogs pursuing rabbits and deer. The animals are doing the hunting, but not really for themselves.

dog-cat-birdAnother Barlow illustration presents the hierarchy of natural predation, whereby a dog is shown attacking a smaller animal that has itself just preyed upon down a small bird.  There’s real emotion depicted in the scene.  It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the plight of both victims, which I think is Barlow’s intent.

He also presents an owl sitting impassively while other birds apparently seek to frighten it away in one scene, and then another with an owl seeking to protect its own chicks from a menacing hawk, one of several illustrations in these four collections of his work which show animals protecting their young, one of the key aspects of animal behavior that Barlow no doubt observed during the close observation he made of them in their natural contexts.

owl2owl1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overall, Barlow’s work seems to not only display details of animal life and his vision of the natural order, but also to evince considerable sympathy for animals in their various roles in nature.  It’s hard to think of a more important lesson than that.

uppercover

Upper cover of Cotsen collection of plate books (#17032), showing lion illustration and armorial crest pasted down

Apart from the four sets of Barlow plates and the two other collections of animal etchings that all bound together within this unique Cotsen  volume, the book is further extra-illustrated with a number of additional plates depicting animals mounted on blank pages at the end of the volume, on the endpapers and inside covers, and even on the upper cover (along with an armorial crest).  How these items all came to be bound together is something we’re still investigating, but it seems safe to say that it was done by someone with a keen interest in animals and nature — and judging from the well-worn covers and pages, this was a volume perused many times over its lifetime.


Notes:

  1. John Evelyn, quoted in the Oxford DNB
  2. Antony Griffiths, The Print in Stuart England, 1603-1689
  3. Edward Hodnett, Francis Barlow: First Master of English Illustration