Celebrating lemurs and World book night

by Ann Sylph on

A lemur from China!? Celebrating lemurs with the new In with the Lemurs walk-through exhibit opening at ZSL London Zoo starring ring-tailed and one black and white ruffed lemur.

Black and white ruffed lemur image, Watercolour, bodycolour and pencil. Circa 1829-1831
Black and white ruffed lemur image, Watercolour, bodycolour and pencil. Circa 1829-1831


This drawing forms part of our `Animals in the Reeves collection’, drawings from China. As lemurs are endemic to Madagascar, the drawing is a bit of a mystery. John Reeves  (1774-1856) was by profession an inspector of tea based in China for the British East India Company. His employment with the Company started in London in 1808. In 1812 he went to China as Assistant Inspector located at the Company’s  headquarters in Macao and during the tea season he worked in Canton.  He later became Chief Inspector of Teas, making China his home for nineteen years.

Reeves quickly realised that the animals and plants were very different from anything he had seen in England. Some were strikingly beautiful, especially the flowers, and soon he started collecting specimens of both flora and fauna, and engaging talented Chinese artists to paint them. He became a dedicated amateur naturalist. Reeves was encouraged by naturalists in England who were very eager to have the exotic Chinese plants and animals and compare them with the natural history collections in the British Museum and elsewhere. Plants were also potential profitable commodities to food and spice merchants, but it is for the introduction of many varieties of the most attractive plants like chrysanthemums, roses, camellias, and peonies into English gardens, that John Reeves was responsible, adding to the regular trade in living plants that was already set up to transport plants by sea to satisfy eager European horticulturists​.

Reeves and later with his son John Russell Reeves,  formed large collections of watercolours of plants and animals, and many preserved specimens. The watercolours are in  ZSL Library and Natural History Museum, London. Reeves wrote only a few scientific papers about the natural history of China but he generously made his collections available to other naturalists. Many animals have been named after Reeves, including a small deer Reeves's muntjac, Muntiacus reevesi, and Reeves Pheasant, Syrmaticus reevesi.

Reeves' watercolours are one of the earliest historical visual records of Chinese natural history, many of the watercolours are outstandingly beautiful. Some of the drawings are `stock’ paintings for the western market. Others were commissioned by Reeves.  Canton became a trading post for China and the rest of the world, not all the commodities were from China with some brought in by merchants, sailors and travellers  so it is likely that this lemur was one of the animals being traded there and Reeves took the opportunity to possibly purchase the lemur and commission a drawing of this attractive animal by a local artist.

Unfortunately there is no context or information about the drawings which lessens their scientific value however they often depicted species new to western scientists and were the only details available. Many of the drawings are very beautiful if highly stylised. Reeves used talented local artists but we know few of their names. According to Judith Magee in her book about Reeves (see further reading below) four names are listed in his notebook : Akut, Akam, Akew and Asung

Ring tailed lemur, Lemur catta lithograph from 1840s
Ring tailed lemur, Lemur catta lithograph, Plate no. 90 in Volume 1 of `Histoire naturelle des mammifères, avec des figures originales, coloriées, dessinées d'après des animaux vivans... par M. Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire et par Frédéric Cuvier. Paris : Be


This is an attractive, early lithographic print of a ring-tailed lemur, Lemur catta,  Plate no. 90 in Volume 1 of Histoire naturelle des mammifères, avec des figures originales, coloriées, dessinées d'après des animaux vivans... par M. Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire et par Frédéric Cuvier. Paris :  Belin, 1824-42, one of the historic books in ZSL Library. These books often contain first descriptions of species.


Do enjoy looking at these images and take the opportunity to visit the In with the Lemurs  walk-through exhibits at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo and ZSL London Zoo!

To celebrate World Book Night on 23 April we have added some images of owls from the `Reeves Collection' as owls are frequently nocturnal!

Drawings of owls in the Reeves Collection, China circa 1829
Drawings of owls in the Reeves Collection, China circa 1829

Further reading :

Animals in the Reeves Collection / Ann Datta  in ZSL Library catalogue http://library.zsl.org Item id no. ART10000099

Chinese art and the Reeves collection / Judith Magee, London : Natural History Museum, 2011. (Images of nature)

About lemurs  


If you are a ZSL Fellow or Member please do also visit ZSL Library. Others are also welcome but please do bring photographic ID and proof of address when you visit, see ZSL Library Collection for details.


These two `artefacts’ form part of our Special Collections so you would normally need to make an appointment to view them. However the Reeves drawings  will be displayed in ZSL Library throughout April.

ZSL Library is open weekdays 9.30am to 5.30pm but is closed on bank holidays.



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