List of Figures

September 29, 2011

Iconic types

Exhibit A:
This somewhat naïve painting was made in 1774 by Georg Forster. Naturalist, travel writer, — and revolutionary! — he spent his formative years accompanying his father Johann Reinhold Forster on scientific expeditions around the world, including the famous second voyage of James Cook on HMS Resolution. On Ulietea (now Raiatea), one of the Society Islands in South Pacific, the team collected one specimen of a previously unknown bird. As an assistant to the expedition’s official naturalist, it was Georg’s job to record the acquired samples of local flora and fauna (there’s actually a picture showing him doing exactly that in Tahiti). Later, the specimen was sent to the collection of Joseph Banks (the renowned naturalist of Cook’s fist voyage, for whom the Forsters were a last-minute replacement). While there, it was examined and scientifically described by John Latham as a Bay Thrush. Just four years later, this important type specimen disappeared, nobody quite knows how. No living bird was seen again, either; the species was almost certainly extinct by 1850. Despite a considerable effort, no bones, eggs or skins could be found. Nothing. All that remains is this small watercolor.

Exhibit B:
This is another example of what is known as iconotype, an image used instead of the type specimen, when it’s destroyed, lost, or otherwise unavailable. For this particular species, though, the iconotype is not just a poor substitute. Described from this picture in 1915, White-throated Pigeon died out on its native Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea some 60 years prior; no specimen or skin was ever obtained. The unique depiction was produced by George Raper, a self-taught painter who was a midshipman on board HMS Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet bringing convicts to establish the first European colony in Australia.

April 24, 2010


Easter Island and was unknown to Europeans until the 1722 visit by a Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen. In his journal he briefly notes “remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height”.

The second to visit, in 1770, were two Spanish ships under command of Felipe González de Ahedo. One of the maps they compiled contains probably the earliest depiction of the moai statues, albeit a very schematic one:

In 1774, the island was rediscovered during the second voyage of Captain James Cook. One of the expedition’s artists was William Hodges, who produced this famous landscape:[1]

In 1786, French explorer Jean François de Galaup La Pérouse reached the island, made a detailed map and wonderingly measured the statues. His artist, Gaspard Duché de Vancy, faced with a task to record such strange images, clearly failed:[2]

This never fails to amuse me. Newsflash: Rapanui are Caucasian!


  1. W. Hodges, A View of the Monuments of Easter Island, Rapanui. 1775.
  2. G. Duché de Vancy, Islanders and Monuments of Easter Island, plate 11 from Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse, Paris, 1785-88.

Blog at