Grotesque is in the Eye of the Beholder

These oddities, from fancy drawn,
May surely raise the question,
Will DARWIN say – by chance they’re formed,
Or “
Natural Selection?

Some might say that these characters are not suitable for cuddling, but in the right light they bring whimsy to a topic that at the time was almost heresy and worthy of losing one’s head.

I’ve always been interested in topics that to many are the stuff of nightmares. While researching ancient books on demons and mythology, I came across Grotesque Animals. I managed to find a 1972 reprint online from a bookstore in France.

Being raised in the company of artists, Edward William Cooke (1811-1880, London) began at an early age and by his late teens was a competent engraver. Cooke learned, as most artists do, by copying. He trained with his father, George Cooke who was an accomplished engraver and in 1817 began working on Botanical Cabinet for Loddiges, one of the most notable plant nurseries of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. At age 9 Edward began helping his father prepare aquatints for the magazine. At age 11 Cooke wrote to his father “As I have drawn many of your curiosities, may I now do what you long promised me, that is, may I sketch them in a manner superlatively well scribbly and accurate”.

Cooke had many interests including landscape design, horticulture, natural history and geology. He began painting in oils in 1833 and first exhibited in at the Royal Academy and British Institution in 1835.

In the early 1860’s, Cooke attended a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in Manchester. Post Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, the conversation was on human-animal kinship. Cooke described in his journal that he was overcome by a sense of revulsion and misanthropy standing amongst well-dressed men and women discussing Darwin’s book, as he imagined their kinship to animals.

After this meeting, Cooke took sanctuary by the sea and drew a series of animal-human hybrid caricatures. Composed standing and having conversations with each other, the characters are made up of animal, bird, sea creature and human parts, drawn in the style of Jean-Ignace Gerard Grandville and Paul Gavarni. In 1827 he published Entwicklungsgeschichte Grotesque Animals Invented, Drawn and Described *.

With the double distinction of Royal Academician and Fellow of the Royal Society, he was clearly a man devoted to science as much as he was to the arts. Cooke was indefatigable and according to his notes found inactivity unbearable and worked right up until his death.

The book publication only came about because his friends wished to have copies of the drawings, almost like the social media or website of the time. I wonder if Cooke ever imagined that 140 years later, his drawings would be appearing on t-shirts in a country that was in its infancy when he was drawing. Even more intriguing is the fact the topic of discussion still brings the same feelings to the fore, ranging from disdain to a sense of wonderment about where humanity will end.

*History of development

Some of my favourite plates