“I took care to get the true character of the animal” – The Zoological Sketches by Joseph Wolf

The Zoological Sketches are two volumes of 100 plates published between 1857 and 1867. They show particularly rare animals from Regent’s Park in London, which Joseph Wolf captured in watercolours and on the basis of which Joseph Smit made lithographs. The edited notes were written by David William Mitchell, Secretary of the Zoological Society. After his death his successor, Philip Lutley Sclater, took over the work and completed the volumes.

The Library of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin holds a copy of this title in its collection. There is a digital copy of the work in BHL, contributed by the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

photo of brown book spines

Copy of the Zoological Sketches by Joseph Wolf in the Holdings of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Photo: Carola Radtke | MfN.

Regent’s Park, now London Zoo, was founded in 1828 for the purpose of scientific observation of wild animals from all parts of the British Empire. “In the year 1852 the Council of the Zoological Society […] resolved to commence the formation of a series of original water-colour drawings […]. For this purpose the Council were fortunate enough to secure the services of Mr. Joseph Wolf, who may be fairly said to stand alone in intimate knowledge of the habits and forms of Mammals and of Birds. …“(Preface).

Joseph Wolf was born on 22 January 1820 in Mörz (Germany). He was trained as a lithographer in Münster, but also mastered the work with pencil, water and oil paints, and coal. He worked in different places in Europe before coming to London in 1840 to work at the British Museum as an animal illustrator. By that time, he had already made a name for himself with his illustrations, especially of birds.  Sir Edwin Landseer described him as “… without exception, the best all-round animal painter that ever lived. …” (Palmer 1895, p. 283). The Zoological Society appointed Wolf as its resident artist in 1861.

Wolf, who until then only sketched animals in the wild, always dealt with the self-assertion of the individual and incorporated this into his works. The housing of the animals in the zoo in which they did not show their natural behaviour was therefore a challenge for him.

Animals that came to Regent’s Park in the 19th century often had a long, exhausting journey behind them. Wolf wrote “… for sometimes, when they arrived, they were in a miserable state, and hardly I knew what to make of them. I used to do two or three of these drawings in a day, if the material were good. All these were vignettes only; but I took care to get the true character of the animal” (Palmer 195, p. 110).

In addition to the embellished depictions of the individuals, most of the 100 plates show the zoo animals in an ideal, natural environment. A few, however, provide insights into zoo life and depict the animals in their enclosures or provide a view of the visitors. Although the animals are described anonymously by Mitchell and Sclater, the records of the Zoological Society allow us to deduce which individuals of Regent Park’s Wolf drew.

Illustration of hippopotami

Illustration of the hippopotamus in the Zoological Sketches (Volume 1, Plate XXVII) by Joseph Wolf, here shown in the copy that is in the holdings of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. Photo: Carola Radtke | MfN.

The hippopotamus bull Obaysh came to Regent’s Park as a calf on 25 May 1850 and quickly became a crowd puller. In 1854, he got a companion, Adhela. On plate XXVII (Part I) are two adult hippos, as well as a herd in the background, a mother with a calf and a western swamphen in a natural habitat. Since Joseph Wolf himself never visited Africa, he relied on third party sources for the design of the environment. For all the hippopotami depicted, especially the two individuals in the foreground, Obaysh and Adhela were probably models. Their names are not mentioned in the text and the representation of the right side of the body makes it impossible to identify Obaysh by a characteristic scar on his left side. As Obaysh and Adhela were the only hippos in the zoo, Wolf used different sketches of them for the herd to show different behaviours of the species.


Plate XXIV, Part 2. The Zoological Sketches. Art by Joseph Wolf. Lithographed by Joseph Smit. Contributed in BHL from the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

The situation is similar with plate XXIV, Part 2, where a herd of elephants shows up in a supposedly natural environment. Probably Jumbo, who came to Regent’s Park on 26 June 1865, and Alice were depicted. This plate makes it clear that Wolf’s depiction of zoo animals does not show their natural behaviour. The picture of the bull elephant together with the cow and a calf rather reflects the ideal of a Victorian family, as bull elephants are rouges. Furthermore, in African elephants, both females and males have tusks but the cow elephant shown here does not seem to have any. This can be explained by the fact that Alice was only 2 years old when Wolf made his sketches, and her tusks were apparently not yet fully developed.

illustration of a bear in a book alongside text

Illustration and edited notes of the Syrian Bear in the Zoological Sketches (Volume 1, Plate XVII) by Joseph Wolf, here shown in the copy that is in the holdings of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. Photo: Carola Radtke | MfN.

Plate XVII, Part 1 is one of the few that shows an animal in its zoo enclosure. The almost portrait-like drawing shows a Syrian Bear on straw in front of a board wall. It is not possible to take a closer look at the surroundings, e.g. to determine whether he lives together with other animals of the same species or to measure the dimensions of the enclosure.  By depicting the bear in its actual accommodation, Wolf focuses on the animal’s personality; the bear no longer remains anonymous. The accompanying text also mentions that the bear was a gift from the Persian Gulf and arrived in London in August 1851.

The discussed plates show a selection of the illustrations of the Zoological Sketches and set highlights on individual features that are characteristic for this work. Despite their idealization and partial embellishment, they remain true to their scientific purpose and are an outstanding example of 19th century European animal painting.

You can also explore all of the artworks from this title in the BHL Flickr: Volume One | Volume Two


Palmer, A. H. 1895. The life of Joseph Wolf,: animal painter. London: Longmans, Green.
Susset, Nicole Ricarda, and Nicole Ricarda Susset. 2013. Lebendigkeit im Bild: Joseph Wolf und die Tiermalerei im 19. Jahrhundert.
Schulze-Hagen, Karl, and Joseph Wolf. 2000. Joseph Wolf (1820-1899), Tiermaler. Marburg an der Lahn: Basilisken-Presse.

photo of a blonde human
Written by

Elisa Herrmann (M. A. LIS) is the Scientific Head of Library Collections and Information Supply at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin since April 2019. She is responsible for the digital transformation of the library. This includes monitoring and coordinating digitisation projects as well as the development of the library into a modern information infrastructure to support researchers along the whole research process. She brings her expertise and experiences from former digitisation and crowdsourcing projects within the library field and supports the museum to open up its collection.