Artistic Responses

Scelete Unicornium Verum

Katy Cole

Throughout the Philosophers’ Table project my concern has focused mainly on animal anatomy, taxidermy and skeletons. During a visit to the Tyne and Wear museum archives I found the enormous collection of animal bones was fascinating. I find animals stripped down to their skeletons often remarkably unrecognisable as the creatures they once were.

The Platypus, gifted to the Lit and Phil in 1799 must have seemed a very peculiar creature. At first it was found difficult to believe that it was a real animal as nothing like it had been seen in this country before. (The one previous specimen was a dried skin as opposed to a whole preserved animal). This object provided the starting point for my work.

The direction of the work was also determined by my research into the discovery in the 17th century by German scientist Otto Von Guericke of a ‘unicorn’ skeleton. Fossilised bones were discovered in ‘Unicorn cave’ in central Germany, that Guericke thought to be those of a unicorn. Philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz was convinced of their validity and reconstructed the fossil vertebrate in an engraving in his book ‘Protogea’. The bones were later identified as a combination of woolly rhino and mammoth, with the tusk of a Narwhal. At a time when so much of the natural world was a mystery, the notion of the bones being those of the mythical unicorn does seem almost possible, although the image of this strange creature today seems ridiculous.

My drawings piece together bones from various animals to construct hybrid, fantastical specimens, which although peculiar could almost be real, a newly discovered specimen perhaps. Although we now know so much more about the species that inhabit(ed) our planet it seems entirely possible we could still be making mistakes. For example, new information surfaces regularly, changing what we think we know about extinct, prehistoric creatures and new species are still being discovered.

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