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News | Published: Tue 19 Aug 2014

ImageWhales, fish and aquatic wonders

The exhibition Very like a fish: Prints of whales and other aquatic wonders also complements and continues the story that surfaced during recent conservation of a painting by Hendrick van Anthonissen, where a beached whale was discovered underneath layers of paint. Painted around 1641, View of Scheveningen sands, with a stranded sperm whale is one of the star items of the recently restored Dutch gallery.

All the prints on show were published in Antwerp around 1600. In this period most zoological publications still placed whales with fish, or treated them as wondrous sea monsters. In the years around the turn of the century crowds flocked to see the sperm whales that were washed ashore by storms along the North Sea coast of the Netherlands. With a spirit of awe and curiosity they measured and recorded the huge cadavers, but many feared their appearance on land as a sign of God’s wrath and impending disaster.

Displayed for the first time is a new gift of prints by Adriaen Collaert featuring detailed pictures of fish against beautiful seascapes and river scenes, including many different aquatic creatures from a walrus and sea-lion, pilot-fish, lobster, a five-bearded rockling and Dragonet, to common fish such as minnow, cod and plaice.

Built in 1936, the Charrington Print Room contains one of the great historic interiors of the Fitzwilliam. The room was closed to create a better environment for the prints in an energy-efficient and sustainable way without altering the appearance of the gallery. A new air-handling system was installed in the Print Room and in the adjacent Dutch Gallery that uses a combination of mechanical systems and natural ventilation. It is the first step in a major, innovative project to improve the environment throughout the galleries whilst reducing the Museum’s carbon footprint. Parts of the new system are cunningly disguised in state of the art display cases, veneered in Australian Black Bean wood to match the original panelling of the room. In addition, daylight has been excluded and replaced with diffused LED lighting at a better level for the light-sensitive prints.

Very like a fish: Prints of whales and other aquatic wonders is on display in the Charrington Print Room until 14 September.