Creatures and Illustrations Thereof

Illustrations of creatures, both real and imaginary, have been part of human culture since the dawn of time. From the wall paintings of aurochs, deer, and horses on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France, to the whimsical creatures dreamed up by early explorers and depicted on old maps, capturing the essence of animals has been a fascinating part of human history.

I still have — though it is now tattered and without a cover — a copy of Francis Wardle’s Zoo Book, a gift to me over sixty years ago, before I could even read. I loved browsing through this book as a child, and I probably appreciated it more once my mother started taking us to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. From there, I graduated to the “How and Why Wonder Book” series. Like most kids, I was thrilled by dinosaurs. Even today I have an illustrated book about dinosaurs (Dinosaurs: A Visual Encyclopedia) waiting patiently on my shelf to be read.

Imaginary creatures have been our close companions since childhood. If not the Monster Under the Bed, it was Jess, the imaginary dog my parents let me have (because it made no noise, didn’t have to be fed, and didn’t have to be walked by someone). Authors and illustrators like Dougal Dixon have extrapolated from real creatures of the present to their possible evolutionary descendants of the future (see After Man: A Zoology of the Future, and other books). Illustrator Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials and Guide to Fantasy provide great visuals of creatures we will never meet except between the covers of a book.

But the creepiest book on imaginary creatures I’ve seen in a long time is E. B. Hudspeth’s The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black, a reference book by a fictional scientist with “comprehensive illustrations and explanatory texts regarding the musculature and skeletal systems [and] viscera” of “the lesser known species of the animal kingdom.” The anatomical diagrams in this book are presented as one would expect to see in a human or veterinarian anatomy book, showing the skeletal and muscular structure for almost a dozen mythological creatures, including a sphinx, a minotaur, a dragon, and a harpy.