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Book of the Month

January 2002

Louis Renard
Poissons, Ecrevisses et Crabes  

Amsterdam: 1754

Sp Coll Hunterian X.1.14 

The first book for 2002 brightens our gloomy winter in its depiction of some brilliantly coloured but rather bizarre tropical fish, crabs and lobsters. Bearing the rather unwieldy title of Fishes, crayfishes, and crabs, of diverse colours and extraordinary form, that are found around the islands of the Moluccas and on the coasts of the southern lands, this book is historically important as being the earliest known work on fishes to be produced in colour.


The first edition of the book was published by Louis Renard in Amsterdam in about 1719. According to the title-page puff, it was almost thirty years in the making. Only 100 copies were produced and it is now extremely rare. The second edition appeared in 1754 under the auspices of the prominent publishers Reinier and Josué Ottens, also of Amsterdam. The firm of Ottens purchased about thirty unbound copies of the first edition from Renard's estate, had the plates coloured, replaced the original undated title-page and added a preface by  Aernout Vosmaer as well as a 'Declaration' by Renard (suppressed in all but one known copy of the first edition); they then printed some 70 additional copies to make up a second edition. Although less rare than the first edition, a survey by Pietsch found only thirty-four copies of this edition extant internationally. Ours is actually a  'hybrid' copy which contains Renard's undated title-page of the first edition but also the preface by Vosmaer which is found only in the second. Two other hybrid copies are known to survive although their existence cannot be fully explained. A third edition was published in 1782 by the house of Abraham von Padenburg and Willem Holtrop. Again, copies of this book are extremely rare, probably because its publication was never completed.

Consisting of two parts - here bound together - Poissons... was one of Renard's most substantial publications. As well as spending some seventeen years as a publisher and bookdealer, Renard (c.1678-1746) also sold medicines, brokered English bonds and, more intriguingly, acted as a spy for the British Crown, being employed by Queen Anne, George I and George II. In this capacity he helped guarantee the Protestant succession to the throne by preventing stores from reaching the 'Old Pretender' James Stuart. These supposedly clandestine activities were not particularly secret. In fact, Renard used his status as an 'agent' to help advertise his books. This particular work is actually dedicated to George I while the title-page describes the publisher as  'Louis Renard, Agent de Sa Majesté Britannique'. 

The book contains 100 plates comprising 460 hand coloured copper engravings. In all, 415 fishes, 41 crustaceans, two stick insects, a dugong and a mermaid are represented. The illustrations in the first part tend to be fairly realistic, but many in the second verge on the surreal. The illustrations have generally been condemned as being crudely drawn but they were - for the most part - made after actual specimens. Renard carefully explains in his introduction that for the first volume he had the images copied exactly from drawings belonging to Mr Baltazar Coyett - the governor and director of Ambon and Banda (1694-1706) - who had the fish captured and painted. The illustrations in the second volume were based upon a collection of drawings belonging to Mr Van der Stel, governor of the Molucca Islands, who had the fish drawn by the artist Samuel Fallours. Many of the species depicted had in fact been known to Europeans as dried or preserved, but the brilliant, natural colours of the specimens faded almost immediately: Renard therefore included several prefatory testimonies underlining the authenticity of the work in case the brightness and variety of the colouring should be questioned.

Of the fish shown here, the grey specimen at bottom left called by Renard a 'Nanourang' is more commonly known as a Trevally; the 'Baard Mannetje' (literally 'little bearded man') at the top is a Lined Goatfish; the large black and white 'Douwing Formosa' to the left  is an Emperor Angelfish; and the fierce and spiky 'Troutoen' to the left is the Porcupine fish.

volume 1: fol. 5


volume 2: planche XLIV

Despite the book's promises of authenticity, many of the fish bear no similarity to any living creatures. Inaccuracies are found in  the addition of small human faces, suns, moons and stars to the flanks of fishes and the carapaces of crabs. It would also seem that colours were applied in a rather arbitrary fashion. However, it is easy to understand how colouring errors might creep in from repeated copyings of the drawings; according to Pietsch 'the use of the proper color each time a painting was repeated most likely became tedious as well, the artist eventually deciding that any available colour would do as long as it was nice and bright and helped achieve a satisfactory whole'. It is also possible that some of the more outlandish creatures were drawn from verbal descriptions. Therefore, it is obvious that many of the illustrations were undoubtedly exaggerated if not actual figments of Fallours' imagination - the artist probably being keen to produce amazing beasts for future financial gain and patronage. 
The work contains no text apart from the engraved descriptions on the plates themselves. Many of these are anecdotal and highly entertaining.  Several of the fish are assessed in terms of their edibility and are accompanied by brief recipes. The 'Loupert de Baguwall' fish shown at the bottom of this plate is apparently very good with sorrel sauce; unfortunately, this recommendation cannot be tested since the fish is unidentified and was more than likely invented by the artist. Conversely, the 'Ican Tomtombo' (Thornback Boxfish) shown in the plate below is described as being inedible to Europeans on account of its oiliness and stench, although the locals make a stew of it.  In the plate shown to the right, the 'Katjang-Roeper, Crabbe-criarde' at top left is said to have high cries like a little cat: this is the Redspot swimming crab, although the three red spots on the carapace (from which the crab's name derives) are erroneously painted blue here. The other crab depicted in this plate is described as sacred to Buting Island and venerated by missionaries and priests. According to the caption, while preaching the gospel to the Indians, St Francis Xavier was showing a crucifix to the people which was snatched by an angry king and thrown into the sea; a crab marked with a cross like the one shown here brought it back to the shore in its claws in full view of the king and the people who, by this miracle, were converted to Christianity.

volume 2: planche XLIX 

volume 2: detail of planche VI

While the drawings may be outlandish, this book is important in the development of animal illustration.  As Pietsch has pointed out, if we ignore the colouration and anatomical errors and 'concentrate on color pattern and certain key generic and familial characters ... we can associate many of these drawings with existing animals'.  

Therefore, while not scientifically accurate, most of the creatures depicted do represent actual tropical species of the Indo-West Pacific Ocean and only a few are truly fantastical. The final plate's depiction of a mermaid, however, is a good example of the artistic licence found in several of the drawings. According to the accompanying caption, this mermaid was caught on the coast of Borné in the province of Ambon; it was 59 inches long and of eel-like proportions. It lived on shore in a tank of water for four days and seven hours and occasionally made small cries like a mouse. It would not eat although it was offered small fishes, molluscs, and crabs. After its dying of hunger, Fallours is said to have lifted her fins in the front and back and found her to be like any other woman. The prefatory testimonials in the book cite several other examples of similar 'monsters' being sighted and states that the existence of the mermaid is 'quite definitely affirmed'.

volume 2: planche LVII
Despite its occasional embellishments and flights of fancy, the book was viewed as a serious scientific effort when first published. Appearing at a time when hardly anything was known about East Indian fishes,  it may be regarded as a product of the Enlightenment; as Pietsch says, 'describers of nature, particularly scientific illustrators, were developing a greater concern with exact, precise representations of living things. In many ways Louis Renard's book is  a product of this new interest in scientific inquiry based on direct observation and reason'. Certainly, this period's intense interest in botany and zoology resulted in fanatical collecting of strange, never-before-seen plants and animals and encouraged the publication of volumes such as this.

This article has drawn heavily upon Fishes, crayfishes, and crabs: Louis Renard's Natural history of the rarest curiosities of the seas of the Indies edited by Theodore W. Pietsch (Baltimore/London: John Hopkins University Press, 1995)

Other early illustrated 'fish' books: Francis Willoughby De historia piscium libri quatuor... [Et Appendix... Pisces Indiae Orientalis a Joanne Nieuhofs descripti.] Oxford: 1686 Sp Coll Hunterian L.1.8; Achille Valenciennes Ichthyologie des iles Canaries, ou histoire naturelle des poissons rapportes Sp Coll BD14-a.5; Pieter Bleeker Atlas ichthylolgique des Indes Orientales Neerlandaises Amsterdam: 1862-1878 Sp Coll e106-114


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Julie Gardham January 2002