George Stubbs’ kangaroo and dingo paintings get export bar
The UK government has taken steps to keep in the country two oil paintings that gave the 18th Century British public their first chance to see what a kangaroo and a dingo looked like.
A temporary export bar has been placed on the two George Stubbs works, which went on display in London in 1773.
It a Stubbs. It’s charming. It’s beautiful. It’s elegant. It may be The Kangouro from New Holland. Only … it sure ain’t any kangaroo we’ve seen.
Apparently Stubbs was working from a pelt, which he somehow inflated. The head is obviously ‘borrowed’ from a passing rodent (at worst) or deer (at best).
The image on the BBC website was clearly trimmed (and forcibly stamped with the copyright of the Press Association). So Malcolm went looking for a better, and found quite a few. Even the one above, from the Guardian, has lost the creature’s tail.
His rooting also located another delight: a website — The Library of Curiosities — written by Steven de Joode, who seems to be a Dutch bookseller. Only the last eight (as of now) posts are in English, and Malcolm’s Dutch is non-existent. Still, that includes:
This, as the self-explanatory headline has it, tells the story of the first European encounters with the beast; and how it was depicted. It also a reproduction of a book engraving (inverted left-to-right) taken from the Stubbs.
The first is the hoary old Australian joke that Cook, or Banks, or someone spotted kangaroos in the distance, asked a strolling aboriginal what they were, and heard some version of “kangaroo”. Hence the name in English, but not realising that what the aboriginal had meant was, “Bugger me mate. Haven’t a clue.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, in its refined way, repeats that anecdote as:
Etymology: Stated to have been the name in an Australian Aboriginal language.
Cook and Banks believed it to be the name given to the animal by the aborigenes at Endeavour River, Queensland, and there is later affirmation of its use elsewhere. On the other hand, there are express statements to the contrary (see quots. below), showing that the word, if ever current in this sense, was merely local, or had become obsolete. The common assertion that it really means ‘I don’t understand’ (the supposed reply of the local to his questioner) seems to be of recent origin and lacks confirmation. (See Morris Austral English s.v.)
Then there is the real mystery.
It is well-established that the Dutch reached New Holland/Australia long before Cook: de Joode has that as:
… the fateful voyage of the Dutch merchantman Batavia, wrecked off the coast of Western Australia in 1629. The disaster would lead to mutiny and the massacre of almost half of the crew. This tragedy, however, also resulted in the first European sighting of an Australian marsupial. The Batavia was wrecked on a reef of the Houtman Abrolhos, and on these islands Francisco Pelsaert, commander of the ship, discovered numerous ‘cats’: “creatures of a miraculous form, as big as a hare; the head similar to [that] of a civet cat, the fore-paws are very short, about a finger long.
On the shelves of Redfellow Hovel is a 1977 book by Kenneth Gordon McIntyre, “an Australian lawyer with a lifelong interest in the history of discovery”. The book is The Secret Discovery of Australia: Portuguese Ventures 200 Years Before Captain Cook. It contains a large dose of induction, based on some crude maps of the southern ocean (to which McIntyre applies any manner of abstruse ‘corrections’) . In particular he argues that Cristovão Mendonça —
a man of superior importance, what we would call a Royal Navy Captain … a man of some birth … a man of considerable prowess [page 241]
— was in and around northern Australia in the 1520s. He lost a set of keys at Geelong in 1522, which were rediscovered in 1847, though —
the keys themselves have been lost, and cannot now be examined … Probably even if the keys could be found, they could only be identified as common European keys, not especially identifiable as Portuguese.
Ummm … pretty thin stuff, don’t you feel?
McIntyre also makes play of the title page of Cornelis de Jode’s Speculum Orbis Terrae:
That dates from 1593. In de Jode’s map of the world, there is a definite lump of land vaguely in the area of Australia. That doesn’t mean, as McIntyre would want, that strange pouched creature in the bottom right quadrant of the title page is a kangaroo.
Among Steven de Joode’s other posts (More! More!) is a nice little reflection on —
Why do we collect books? Much ink has been spilled over this question. A well-known attempt at solving the mystery is Muensterberger’s Collecting: An Unruly Passion, a curious study brimming with psychological gobbledygook. According to the author, collecting is nothing more than an attempt to overcome a traumatic experience or to compensate for a loss suffered in early childhood. The collector surrounds himself with “magic objects” allowing him to conquer traumas.
… books are more than mere (magical) objects: they also have a rational appeal, which is their intellectual content.
What was Malcolm’s traumatic experience?, he wonders.