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Very like a fish: Prints of whales and other aquatic wonders

‘The Whale has its place among fishes, whatever the Cyclopoedists may think of its claim, and will never have it anywhere else ... so very like a fish it is, so strongly in the odour of fishiness, which is a good odour if it be not too strong...’ Robert Southey, A wish concerning whales (1848)

It was only in the second edition of his book The System of Nature (1758) that Carl Linnaeus moved whales out of the category of fish and into a newly defined category of mammals. Even as long ago as the sixteenth century, zoological publications sought to improve Aristotle’s classification of animals, but most still placed whales with fish, or treated them as wondrous sea monsters that had more to do with mythology than the natural world.

Crowds flocked to see the sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) that were washed ashore by storms along the North Sea coast of the Netherlands in the years around 1600. With a spirit of wonder and inquiry they measured and recorded the monstrous cadavers, but many feared their appearance on land as a sign of God’s wrath and impending disaster. Artists treated whales as a momentous or ominous presence in nature, but they also used them as models when depicting the mythical monsters described by Classical authors or by explorers returning from the exotic waters of the New World.

Displayed for the first time is a new gift of prints of fishes by Adriaen Collaert. Like most of the other prints, these were published in Antwerp around 1600. Antwerp’s port had become the commercial hub of Europe after exploration of the New World opened up new trade routes for shipping. Publishers exploited interest in the sea, and although Antwerp lost trade to Amsterdam when it fell to the Spanish in 1585, the sea and its creatures still captured the public imagination in print.

The exhibition also marks the discovery of a beached whale during recent conservation of the painting by Hendrick van Anthonissen, which can be seen in the adjacent gallery of Dutch pictures.

Tue 19 August 2014 to Sun 14 September 2014