Women, art and zoology: Celebrating International Women’s Day with female artists and illustrators

by ZSL on

To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March we are featuring a small selection of female artists and illustrators who have contributed to the development of zoology. As the saying goes a `picture is worth a thousand words’ and these wonderful illustrations are so vivid in depicting animal species, often showing the animal for the first time to a wider public and to explorers, scientists and naturalists.

The illustrations of bivalve molluscs in Conchyliorum bivalvium utriusque aquae exercitatio anatomica tertia, huic accedit dissertatio medicinalis de calculo humano, [by] Martin Lister are the earliest illustrations I can find in our collection which are associated with women. This volume was published in 1696 and Martin Lister employed his two daughters, Susanna and Anna Lister, as illustrators.

Illustration of bivalve anatomy
Illustration of bivalve anatomy, Plate 7 in Conchyliorum bivalvium utriusque aquae exercitatio anatomica tertia, huic accedit dissertatio medicinalis de calculo humano, [by] Martin Lister, Londini : sumptibus authoris impressa, 1696

Maria Sibylla Merian, a German-born entomologist and artist, at the age of 52 sailed to Surinam in South America in 1699. She was accompanied by her youngest daughter, Dorothea. There she observed insects and their life cycles as well as their associated food plants. Her careful observations there and before her journey helped to disprove the theory of `spontaneous generation’ and proved that insects did have a life cycle. The results of this journey was her magnum opus Dissertation sur la génération et les transformations des insectes de Surinam in which she depicted many species for the first time. ZSL’s copy was published in 1726 with the text in Latin and French.

Colourful illustration of a Barbados lily with bullseye moth and leaf-footed bug
Barbados lily with bullseye moth and leaf-footed bug by Marie Merian in Dissertation sur la génération et les transformations des insectes de Surinam, 1726

Sarah Child was a wealthy collector of birds kept at her home at Osterley Park, then in a rural area to the west of London. She had over 100 species of birds in her collection and with her husband Robert, they commissioned the artist William Hayes to illustrate and write a description of the birds, resulting in the publication of the magnificent Rare and curious birds. Accurately drawn and beautifully coloured, from specimens in the menagery, at Osterley Park, by W. Hayes and family. 1779, 1782. The whole Hayes family contributed to the work, with William and his wife both doing illustrations and the colouring by his daughters, Emily and Anne.

Colour illustration of a bird of paradise
Bird of paradise in Rare and curious birds. Accurately drawn and beautifully coloured, from specimens in the menagery, at Osterley Park, by W. Hayes and family. 1779, 1782.

Sarah Stone at the age of 17 was employed by Sir Ashton Lever to record the contents of his Leverian Museum, she was there for 30 years and her illustrations depict many newly discovered species. She also illustrated Journal of a voyage to New South Wales... by John White, London :  Debrett, 1790, depicting many Australian species which were new to science.

Illustration of a poto roo or Kangaroo rat
Poto roo or Kangaroo rat by Sarah Stone in Journal of a voyage to New South Wales... by John White, London : Debrett, 1790,

Elizabeth Gould nee Coxen was married to John Gould for 12 years and was one of the artists he used for his magnificently illustrated folio volumes. During their marriage she drew and lithographed 600 illustrations, she had eight children with six surviving, and she accompanied John on a two-year expedition to Australia. As well as the folio volumes for which Gould is famous, she also illustrated the bird volume of  The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N., during the years 1832 to 1836 ..., edited and superintended by Charles Darwin, London :  Smith, Elder, [1838]-43.

Lithograph of a kingfisher perched on a branch
Kingfisher in Volume II of The birds of Europe / by John Gould, London : published by the author, 1837

Richard Bowdler Sharpe was ZSL’s first Librarian, appointed in 1867. He was a noted ornithologist. He had 10 daughters and at least nine of these acted as colourists in several beautiful and informative zoological titles. There was a market for beautifully illustrated books at that time and these women were valued but the artists of many of these works as they took such care in using the correct colours which are particularly important in identifying birds. The daughters were Ada Lavinia, Eva Augusta, Lilian Bertha, Dora Louise, Lena Violet, Daisy Madeline, Sylvia Rosamund, Hilda Marion, Aimee Marjorie.

Lithograph of a swallow in flight
Hirundo erythropygia in A monograph of the Hirundinidae, or family of swallows, by R. Bowdler Sharpe and Claude W. Wyatt, London : Sotheran, 1885-94

Another of his daughters, Emily Mary Bowdler Sharpe, was an entomologist and was featured in another blog Two celebrations - International Women's Day and World Book Day. She was the first woman to be first author of a paper in our Journal of Zoology.

Read more about amazing women from ZSL's history, and to find out more about women’s contribution to science in ZSL publications read this virtual issue of our Journal of Zoology about Women in Zoology

We will be holding a special display of all the featured illustrations in ZSL Library 7-14 March, Library information can be found at ZSL Library Collection Explore and discover our collections using our online catalogue. Please note, the ZSL Library will close on 15 March and will re-open again on 20 March. 

If you are visiting ZSL London Zoo do look out for sculptures by women artists including Wendy Taylor’s Dung beetles and Globe sundial as well as works by Linda Hamilton, Carol Orwin and Teresa Martin in Tiger Territory.


Further reading- ZSL Library holds copies of all these publications

Dr Martin Lister (1639-1712) – pioneer conchologist, Peter Topley, Mollusc World, No. 42, Nov 2016, pp. 6-13

Martin Lister’s English spiders 1678 ,translated from the original Latin by Malcom Davies and Basil Harley, edited with an introduction and notes by John Parker and Basil Harley, Colchester : Harley Books, 1992

Maria Merian’s butterflies, Kate Heard, London : Royal Collection Trust, 2016

The Georgian Menagerie : exotic animals in eighteenth century London, Christopher Plumb, London, New York : I.B. Tauris & Co., 2015, (Hayes family pp. 210-211)

Sarah Stone : natural curiosities from the New Worlds, Christine E. Jackson, London :  Merrell Holberton, 1998

John Gould in Australia : letters and drawings with a catalogue of manuscripts, correspondence and drawings relating to the birds and mammals of Australia held in The Natural History Museum, London, Ann Datta, Carlton South, Vic. :  Melbourne University Press, 1997

Richard Bowdler Sharpe and his ten daughters by Christine E. Jackson, Archives of Natural History, 1994, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp.261-269

Women artists, Andrea Hart, London: Natural History Museum, 2014 (Images of nature)


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