Celebrating 200 years of Joseph Wolf

Many a meeting held in ZSL’s Council Room has been held under the steady gaze of a well-dressed, bearded man holding a bird of prey, with a definite twinkle in his eye.  The subject of the portrait is Joseph Wolf, arguably one of the most talented animal artists that has ever lived, and the 22nd January 2020 marks the bicentenary of his birth.  To celebrate we would like to highlight a handful of his accomplishments and tell you a little about his connections to ZSL London Zoo. 


Starting with the portrait itself, it depicts Wolf when he is 70 years old and was painted by Lance Calkin in 1890.  The title of the painting is aptly named ‘Joseph Wolf (This hobby of mine)’ because the bird he is holding is indeed a hobby (although interestingly it is thought that originally Wolf was painted holding a cigar!). 


Painting of Joseph Wolf by Lance Calkin.
Joseph Wolf by Lance Calkin, 1890


The label on the painting reads:  'This portrait of Joseph Wolf was presented to the Zoological Society of London by a few friends and admirers of his splendid genius and of his 32 years work for the Society. "The best all-round animal painter that ever lived". Landseer'. 


Joseph Wolf was born at Mörz, Eifel, in Germany on 22nd January 1820, and was the son of a farmer.  As far as we know Wolf did not receive any special tuition in art until the age of 16 when he then trained in a printing technique called lithography.   It didn’t take long for Wolf’s other artistic talents to become recognised and the commissions to illustrate scientific books for naturalists started to roll in.  But it was his work on Schlegel and Verster van Wulverhors Traité de Fauconnierie' (1844-53) that stunned the world of ornithology.  The birds were life size and magnificently hand-coloured, which unsurprisingly caught the attention of a wider European audience. 


Schlegel and Verster van Wulverhors ‘Traité de Fauconnierie' (1844-53)
Schlegel and Verster van Wulverhors ‘Traité de Fauconnierie' (1844-53)


To avoid the looming political unrest in Germany Wolf migrated to England in 1848 where there was a booming market for luxury, colour plate natural history books.  Wolf’s talent was keenly sought after, resulting in him contributing to a great number of books; many of which we still hold here in ZSL Library.  One of the most acclaimed of these is ‘A monograph of the Phasianidae, or family of the pheasants’ (1872), by Daniel Giraud Elliot, and is described as “one of the best bird books with hand coloured lithographic illustrations ever published” (Christine Jackson). 


‘A monograph of the Phasianidae, or family of the pheasants’ (1872), by Daniel Giraud Elliot
‘A monograph of the Phasianidae, or family of the pheasants’ (1872), by Daniel Giraud Elliot


Wolf's involvement with ZSL began soon after his move to London where he meets ZSL's Secretary, D.W. Mitchell.  Mitchell announced in 1851 that ZSL would keep a pictorial record of the animals in the Zoo, and Wolf is then commissioned to provide the watercolours until 1869.  ZSL Library has six volumes of original watercolours by Wolf, as well as some that are loose, and these paintings are very special to ZSL; some images depict extinct or extremely rare animals, whilst others depict animals that are integral to ZSL’s history, such as Obaysch the first hippopotamus. 


Obaysch the hippo - an original watercolour by Joseph Wolf.
Obaysch the hippo - an original watercolour by Joseph Wolf.


Illustrations such as the one above would often then be used as the basis for plates in ZSL’s publications the ‘Proceedings of the Zoological Society’ and the ‘Transactions of the Zoological Society’.  In total, Wolf is responsible for around 350 plates for both publications between 1848-1877.  Both these publications are continued today as the ‘Journal of Zoology’.


Wolf is widely regarded as the most brilliant animal painter of the Victorian period and some would say of all time, and ZSL Library is proud to contain so many of his original works.  There is currently a small number of Wolf’s art work on display in the Library Reading Room, but as always, keep an eye on our website and Twitter for news of any upcoming events. 



Whilst researching this blog the ZSL Library team found anomalies regarding Wolf's date of birth: some sources said it was the 21st January, whilst others said the 22nd.  With the kind assistance of Peter Hannon (organizer of the bicentenary celebrations taking place in Germany) we learned that the 21st January is incorrect, despite this date not only appearing in Wolf's biography by A.H. Palmer, but also on his gravestone in Highgate Cemetery!  



The above information is largely taken from the Library catalogue records written by Ann Datta, Volunteer Art Cataloguer for ZSL Library.   



Dictionary of bird artists of the world / Christine E. Jackson. - Woodbridge : Antique Collectors' Club, 1999 

Traite de fauconnerie, par H. Schlegel et A.H. Vester de Wulverhorst. - Leiden : Arnz, 1844-53

A monograph of the Phasianidae, or family of the pheasants / by Daniel Giraud Elliot. - New York : published by the author, 1872


Further information about ZSL Library

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