Joseph Smit - animal artist and illustrator

by Ann Sylph on

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo recently celebrated the birth of a rare and endangered Przewalski or takhi foal, the world’s last “truly wild” species of horse. Photographs of the foal were sent to ZSL conservationists working in Mongolia, colleagues there named the pointy-eared foal “Sooton” which means “sassy and vigilant” in Mongolian.   

Przewalski horses bred at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo were successfully reintroduced to Mongolia as part of a conservation project by Mongolian and UK ZSL scientists to save the then extinct-in-the-wild species. There are now hundreds of wild Przewalski horses living in the grasslands and deserts of Mongolia, Ukraine and China, and their population is increasing. As a result of reintroduction projects, the IUCN Red List reclassified the Przewalski horse as Critically Endangered in 2008, and then again as Endangered as 2011. 

On twitter ZSL Library and Archives celebrated the birth of the foal with this beautiful painting by Joseph Smit. He sketched these horses in 1901 at Woburn, home of ZSL’s then President, the Duke of Bedford.

Watercolour of two Przewalski horses standing, a side view
Prejvalsky's (sic) horse. Sketched in the park at Woburn / J. Smit. 1901

As it is such a beautiful painting I decided I would like to feature some more work by Joseph Smit, he was such a prolific and versatile artist illustrating many of the animals in ZSL’s collections and providing images for our publications. He provided around 600 illustrations from 1865 to 1908 for the Proceedings of the Zoological Society (PZS) and a further 145 for the Transactions of the Zoological Society (TZS), now both continued as Journal of Zoology. As well as the printed plates in the PZS and TZS, ZSL Library and Archives have some of his original artworks and some of the unsigned paintings in our collections have been attributed to him as they are so similar in style.

Watercolour of the profile of a colourful toucan
Choco Toucan by Joseph Smit. 1880

Joseph Smit,1836-1929, was born on 18 July 1836 at Lisse in the Netherlands. He trained as a lithographer. His first opportunity to work in natural history illustration was provided by Hermann Schlegel, director of the Natural History Museum in Leiden. Schlegel engaged Smit to lithograph his own 50 bird paintings for the book he was writing about the birds of the Dutch East Indies - De Vogels van Nederlandsch Indie (1863-66). His next major commission came from Philip Lutley Sclater, Secretary of ZSL. Smit and his family moved to London in 1866 so that he could prepare the 100 drawings of American birds as well as complete the lithography for Sclater's book, Exotic ornithology (1866-1869). Smit met Joseph Wolf, the renowned animal painter, in London and the two men struck up a professional partnership in the 1870s-1890s often working on bird and mammal books together with Wolf doing most of the drawings and Smit the lithography. They worked together for Sclater and M.R.O. Thomas, authors of The book of antelopes (London : Porter, 1894-1900). Smit also prepared the lithographs of Wolf's Zoological Sketches two large volumes of birds and mammals at ZSL London Zoo, published between 1861 and 1867. After Wolf's death in 1899, Smit became the leading mammal illustrator in England. 

Watercolour of a side view of a Père David's Deer
Père David's Deer by Joseph Smit. 1903

Smit perfected his art at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), painting many animals living there especially the new arrivals. He worked on 15 major bird books; he also worked for Ibis which was edited by Sclater, NatureThe Field and other journals. Smit died at Radlett, Hertfordshire on 4 November 1929, the place where he had lived since 1905. His son, Pierre Jacques, 1863-1960, also became a zoological artist.

Joseph Smit often added useful notes on his drawings about who collected the animals and when and from where they came, but he did not always sign them. His accurate illustrations of mammals and birds, usually set in attractive backgrounds appropriate to the natural habitat, ensured a steady demand for his work from naturalists who valued the consistently good quality and reliability.

Watercolour of a cassowary, a large flightless bird, side view
Casuarius westermanni. Rotterdam, by Joseph Smit. 1876

This blog is based on entries in the online catalogue of ZSL Library and Archives. Ann Datta our Volunteer Art Catalogue provided most of this text so my thanks to her. I do hope you enjoy seeing these paintings by Joseph Smit, all his paintings within our collections can be viewed in our online catalogue, they are catalogued individually. PZS and TZS have been digitised and subscribers can access these via the Journal of Zoology site. All the books mentioned can be found in our collections.

ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library & Archives is a wonderful and unique information resource about animals and their conservation – we aim to inspire, inform, and empower people to stop wild animals going extinct. Information is vitally important in conservation.

ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library & Archives is currently closed to visitors. You can still explore and discover our collections in a variety of ways –

Profile view of a black curassow bird's head, black feathers and yellow beak
Head of Black Curassow, artist unknown but probably Joseph Smit. 1877


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