Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Friday, 21 October 2011

WHO'S A PRETTY MYSTERIOUS POLLY, THEN?

'Dodo and Red Parakeet' - c.1773, attributed to William Hodges


What is it with paintings of dodos and red parrots? In a previous ShukerNature post, I investigated the still-unidentified red mystery macaw depicted in a famous painting of the dodo by Flemish artist Roelandt Savery in 1626. Now, I've just discovered a contentious painting popularly assumed (but not confirmed) to be by English painter William Hodges (1744-1797) portraying a dodo, and what do I find also depicted in that painting? You've guessed it – another unidentified red mystery parrot!

William Hodges took part in Captain James Cook's second Pacific Ocean voyage (1772-1775), and is chiefly remembered today for the various paintings and sketches that he produced during that voyage, which visited a number of exotic Pacific locations, including Tahiti, Easter Island, and the sub-Antarctic, as well as South Africa's Table Bay in the south Atlantic.

Consequently, it came as something of a surprise to me recently when I came upon a certain painting, unsigned but generally attributed to Hodges, that portrayed a dodo Raphus cucullatus - a species native to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean until its extinction there around 1681, i.e. several decades before Hodges was even born. Clearly, therefore, assuming that he is indeed the artist who produced this work, Hodges cannot have painted his dodo from life, so he must have drawn his inspiration for it from depictions by other, earlier artists. And indeed, it does closely resemble dodos portrayed in various previous works (particularly Roelandt Savery's afore-mentioned dodo painting from 1626).

Roelandt Savery's 1626 dodo painting, featuring a red mystery macaw to the left, and an equally mysterious green and yellow macaw at top right

Entitled 'Dodo and Red Parakeet', and measuring 23 x 27.5 cm, this alleged Hodges oil on academy board painting is believed to have been produced in c.1773, and is part of the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, housed at the National Library of Australia. Indeed, it was Rex Nan Kivell who provided the controversial attribution of this painting to Hodges. Yet until now, it has seemingly attracted little zoological interest, and does not even feature in acclaimed bird painter-author Errol Fuller's very comprehensive book Dodo: From Extinction to Icon (2002).

In reality, however, it deserves very serious attention, not only on account of the question mark regarding the artist responsible for its creation but also due to the parakeet that it portrays – because this remarkable bird does not appear to resemble any known species alive today or extinct in historic times.

There is no indication of whether this parakeet and the dodo were painted to the same scale, so the parakeet's absolute size cannot be estimated from the painting. Incidentally, due to its long tail I refer to it as a parakeet rather than a parrot. Moreover, although in terms of relative proportions its slender, long-tailed form also recalls that of a macaw, it lacks the distinctive match of bare facial skin characterising all of these large or very large species, and it seems to possess a crest (albeit a somewhat wispy one), which no known species of macaw does. As for its highly distinctive colour combination of bright red head, back, underparts and tail coupled with deep bronze-green wings: when added to its body shape and crest, this collectively delineates it from all other parrots on record.

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice - who famously encountered a dodo and a parakeet when visiting Wonderland - might well have said!

Sir Arthur Tenniel's famous illustration of Alice and the dodo (with the parakeet among the crowd of animals in the background); incidentally, Tenniel's dodo also seems to have been inspired by Savery's version

So what exactly is the alleged Hodges painting's mystifying crested red parakeet (is it even real, or just an invention of the artist?), where did it originate, and where did whoever the painting's artist is see it? So far, I have been unable to answer any of these telling questions – which is where, gentle readers, you come in!

If any of you have information relating to this intriguing painting, the identity of its artist, or, in particular, the enigmatic parakeet depicted in it, I would very greatly welcome any details that you could post here on ShukerNature or on my Facebook wall, or could email to me at karlshuker@aol.com – many thanks indeed!

UPDATE - 25 October 2011

After posting the above account on ShukerNature four days ago, I contacted two dodo authorities for their opinions concerning the alleged Hodges painting and, in particular, the enigmatic red parakeet depicted in it. One of these authorities was the afore-mentioned dodo author Errol Fuller, who emailed me his thoughts just a few hours after my blog post had appeared, and also kindly gave me permission to quote them. So here they are:

"The dodo element to the painting is clearly a derivative from the famous picture by Roelandt Savery that is now in The Natural History Museum. Whether it was copied directly from that picture or from a copy of it I can't, of course, tell. However, the parrot is another matter. In the Savery painting there is a parrot in the same place, but it is a macaw. My own suspicion is that this is just an invented parrot, just put in for decorative purposes - however, I could be wrong, and would be happy to be proved so. It certainly doesn't match any parrot that I know of, so if it is a genuine portrait of a bird, rather than a made up image, then it is something unknown.

"As far as the Hodges attribution is concerned, I can see nothing to stylistically link this with Hodges. My feeling is that it has nothing to do with him. Therefore there is no real reason to necessarily give the parrot a Pacific origin. There are, of course, a number of parrots from Mauritius known only by skeletal material, so if this is a genuine attempt to show Mauritian birds, it could be one of these. This is something of a conceptual leap, however."

This accords well with my own views, but it would be wonderful if some additional, physical evidence could be uncovered that might tilt the balance one way or the other, i.e. either towards the parakeet being an invention or towards it being a genuine, but seemingly unknown species. Just four days later, that elusive evidence arrived, in the form of a fascinating engraving.

Today, 25 October 2011, I received an email from the second dodo authority contacted by me, Jolyon ('Joe') C. Parish, whose own dodo book is due to be published soon; he is also in the process of establishing an accompanying website, 'The Dodologist's Miscellany'. Not only was he already familiar with the alleged Hodges painting, he had also encountered a pertinent engraving that I had not seen before, and which he kindly emailed to me with his reply, which was as follows:

"Strangely enough, I was just looking at the very same picture on the NLA website only a matter of hours before I got your message (what a coincidence!) There is an engraving in Broderip (1833)* [William J. Broderip, Vice-President of the Zoological Society of London at that time], which shows the dodo and parrot (albeit sans crest), taken from Savery’s British Museum painting (see attached). As Broderip does not mention Hodges, or indeed any painting with a dodo and red parakeet, in the article (or in his subsequent articles), it might indicate that the engraving was the original (taken from Savery’s painting, albeit with modification) and that the red parakeet picture was made afterwards, based on this. I don’t know the reasons for the attribution of the painting to Hodges.

"If the painting was made from the engraving, rather than vice versa, then the colouring would probably be imaginary (as with the parrot’s/parakeet’s head crest). It would be interesting to find out the reasons behind the attribution of the picture to Hodges and its date to decide the matter."

The dodo and parrot engraving in Broderip's article

What is so remarkable, and telling, about this engraving (which, incidentally, is an early one, long pre-dating Broderip's 1833 article) is that it is tantalisingly intermediate between Savery's dodo painting and the version attributed to Hodges. I have reproduced this engraving here, and as can be readily seen, not only is the dodo in it clearly based upon Savery's, but it also includes the macaw present in the top-right section of Savery's painting. However, in the engraving it has been transformed somewhat, so that although there are still sufficient similarities between the two parrots for there to be no question that the engraved version was indeed inspired by Savery's macaw, it has a number of noticeable differences too - differences, moreover, which the Hodges parakeet also exhibits and, in some cases, enhances even further, as with the crest.

The three images together, for direct comparison purposes (click pic to enlarge)

In my opinion, therefore, it seems likely that the engraving in Broderip's article was inspired by Savery's painting, and that the alleged Hodges painting was inspired by the engraving in Broderip's article, because the right-hand parrot exhibits a clearly visible transition in transformation from Savery's macaw to the Broderip engraving's parrot to the Hodges parakeet. Moreover, whereas both the engraving's dodo and the Hodges dodo are similar to Savery's, the Hodges dodo is virtually identical to the engraving's, thus providing further evidence that the alleged Hodges painting was inspired directly by the engraving, rather than directly by Savery's painting.

As a result, I now believe it unlikely that the Hodges mystery parakeet is anything other than an invention...or at least I did until 16 November 2011!

SECOND UPDATE - 16 November 2011

Today I received a greatly-welcomed email from David Alderton, an acclaimed authority on parrots and other cage-birds and webmaster of http://www.petinfoclub.com/ who had just read this present ShukerNature blog. Here are his thoughts:

"My immediate impression on seeing the William Hodges painting, which I hadn't seen before - was that the parakeet is actually a cardinal lory (Chalopsitta cardinalis) - see below - which ranges from eastern parts of Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands. These birds don't have a crest as such, but they can raise the feathers on their foreheads to some extent when excited, aggressive etc.. Their colouring is highly distinctive."

Indeed it is, as seen here:

Cardinal lory

There is no doubt that, crest notwithstanding (or simply artistic licence?), the Hodges red mystery parakeet does indeed closely recall the cardinal lory, though, if this is the correct identification, why the painting's artist should combine a Mauritius dodo with an Australasian parrot is unclear. Yet even if this is true, the fact that in general pose and outline the Hodges parakeet readily mirrors the Broderip engraving's parrot still suggests that the engraving directly inspired the painting. In short, it may well be that the latter's artist used a cardinal lory as his subject, but painted it in the same pose as the engraving's parrot.

Cardinal lories, painted by John Keulemans

Having said that, however, certain noteworthy morphological differences are definitely apparent between the cardinal lory and the Hodges red mystery parakeet, such as the lory's patch of white bare facial skin, its shorter tail, and of course its lack of a crest (to my mind, the crest of the mystery red parakeet seems more pronounced than I'd expect from merely some raised brow feathers). Echoing my sentiments are those also received by me today from Errol Fuller:

"I can see no real reason to associate the bird in the picture with the lory. Certainly they are both red with a darker colour on the wings - but so what? This isn't enough to make a match. The parrot in the engraving also has a darker colour on the wing so the painter may have got his inspiration from that. Also, you can't just ignore the crest and the fact that the painted image has a long tail - unlike the lory. So to sum up I don't think this putative identification gets us anywhere.

I still think the most likely solution is that this is just a parrot made up for decorative purposes. Otherwise, this is a hitherto unknown species. But this seems highly - very highly - unlikely to me."

In his email, Errol - who, remember, is not only an author but also a highly accomplished bird painter himself - went on to point out that artists cannot always be relied upon to "get things right", because it is not always their intention to paint true to life:

"Artists have all sorts of reasons for doing what they do. They aren't necessarily trying to tell the absolute truth. Some of them aren't actually capable of it!

"What could be interesting would be to know the date at which the print made its first appearance. If we knew this we could perhaps rule Hodges out of the equation. Incidentally, in my mind he's already ruled out!"

So although the cardinal lory provides the closest match among real species to the Hodges mystery red parakeet, it may be that whoever painted it was merely inspired by this lory, rather than seeking to prepare a true-to-life depiction of it.

I have the feeling somehow that this cryptozoological conundrum is going to run and run - or should that be fly and fly?!

*BRODERIP, William J. (1833). Dodo. Penny Mag. Soc. Diffus. Useful Knowl., 75: 209–211. [reprinted in 1837 within The Penny Cyclopaedia, 9: 47.]

My sincere thanks go to Errol Fuller, Joe Parish, and David Alderton for their much-valued comments and thoughts.

2 comments:

  1. Marvelous to see a resolution for this case. As a parrot lover, specially the hypothetical mysterious ones, this red parakeet already caused me much confusion concerning it existence.

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  2. Thanks very much - I'm really glad that you enjoyed my investigation of this case. Like you, I have always been fascinated with hypothetical and mysterious parrots, and I have some more mystery parrot cases to be posted here on ShukerNature, so keep checking back! All the best, Karl

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