Friday, 30 January 2015

Charles Hamilton Smith's aurochs painting

Holidays begun, so I am going to have plenty of time for the blog the next few weeks. Therefore I’ll have the time also for longer posts, so the next part of the Dedomestication Series is to come soon.

Everybody who is at least superficially interested in the aurochs will be familiar with Charles Hamilton Smith’s Aurochs painting. C.H. Smith (1776-1859) was a naturalist, illustrator, soldier and spy. You can find a lot of his illustrations on the web, his aurochs among it.

It was drawn as an illustration for his book Animal Kingdom in 1826, and shows a bull aurochs. You can find the best-resoluted scan (in black and white) on wikimedia commons: Originally, it is a coloured painting: It is now owned by Walter Frisch.

Smith’s painting is popular and important because it is the most detailed and anatomically precise historical aurochs painting we know of. But alas, it is of course not contemporaneous and not based on a live aurochs. Nevertheless, that artwork is still of value because it is based on a painting that Smith purchased at Augsburg (therefore the painting is often referred to as “Augsburg aurochs”), that, according to Smith, dated back to the first quarter of the 16th century and was painted after a live aurochs. I think it is possible that the aurochs that painting was drawn after was one of the five aurochs from Poland that were exhibited in Nürnberg in 1501, because the aurochs had been extinct on southern German territory since around 1400. However, it is also possible that the creator of the original drew it in Poland. Anyway, the original is lost and we can only infer what it looked like by investigating C.H. Smith’s work.

Usually it is referred to as a copy of the original. But what is meant by “copy”? Did Smith copy each detail by tracking out the original or did he draw his own version by using the original as a guide? Smith drew all his animals in a similar manner: complete or near profile view, legs in an antiparallel position, and always the same fur pattern. Often the tail hair is waved (f.e. look at his Tarpan foal). The eyes are always the same either. And I found a suspicious detail in his aurochs: the position or length of the legs does proportionally not make sense. It almost looks like the hoof of the left hindquarter is positioned directly under or even behind the middle axis of the trunk, while the right hindquarter seems to be more on the left side than the left foot. The forequarters have the same problem but not to the same extent. Some other works by Smith show the same proportional error (f.e. see here, or his Tarpan). Therefore I believe Smith did indeed draw his own version and used the original as a guideline and did not track it out.

But that does not mean that he didn’t take a careful look at what the animal looks like he was painting. The trunk is short and the legs long, resulting in the “squarely built” proportions typical for the aurochs, the shoulder area is heavier than the slim waist, the bull is muscular overall and shown in a dynamic posture, the dewlap is very short, the horn shape is typical of an aurochs and the forelocks are prominent. So the animal he drew shows the main aurochs features and I see no reason to think the original painting was based on a primitive domestic bull or a hybrid bull as also has been suggested. You might be wondering why Smith’s aurochs has a brown colour. In fact, according to Smith, the original had a sooty black colour with a white chin – I don’t know why he decided to give his version a brown fur colour then. The fact that only the chin was white on the original indicates that the live aurochs it was based on was an older individual, as the muzzle ring of aging bulls often gets reduced from top down. As the original lacks the eel stripe, I assume that a) the live aurochs bull did not have an eel stripe, b) the eel stripe was very reduced due to his age and therefore not a prominent detail, c) the artist didn’t care about it or d) the artist chose that the stripe would not be visible from that view. The white ring around the lower half of the eye might be a hint for the presence of white aureole as some wild type-coloured calves and primitive breeds, the Vietnamese Banteng and numerous other bovids have it, but I think Smith just intended to indicate the eye itself. If the original bull had a white aureole, he would have probably mentioned it just as the white chin. The head looks rather paedomorphic, but one single drawing is not enough to dispute something that is evidenced by dozens of osteologic remains. Rather I think the shape of the head of Hamilton Smith’s aurochs is an artefact of stylisation and perhaps exaggeration of details visible on the original – such as the bulk of the tissue on the lower jaw, which would make the snout appear shorter than it is. Anyway, the shape of the head confirms that male aurochs had a head with more or less a lot of tissue and not a lanky head like a domestic steer. The hump is not very well pronounced, but it is still apparent that Smith tried to imply that the shoulder area of the original was heavier than that of the waist. All in all, I think that there is nothing at Charles Hamilton Smith’s aurochs that contradicts what we know about the aurochs’ appearance from other sources. Rather it confirms it.

So, what did the original look like? I assume that all the aurochs traits the bull on Smith’s painting shows were present on the original painting as well, otherwise it would be quite a coincidence that imprecisions, stylisation or imagination of Smith resulted in aurochs traits, that, at the same time, were not present in the original that was drawn after a live aurochs. Probably the original also showed the animal in more or less profile view, otherwise Smith could have hardly deduced that the aurochs had a short trunk with long legs and get the horn shape right. Whether the aurochs on the original was in the same posture of a fast walking gait or maybe stood still or ran cannot be ascertained. However, Smith’s version indicates that the aurochs was a swift and active creature, so perhaps the original did not show it in a boring, static posture. I did not find information on any other details on the painting beside the aurochs and “remains of coats of arms” (van Vuure). Perhaps the background was like on Smith’s work: bushes, a pond or lake behind, with some reed and more bushes. Of course he could have just invented it and the original had a totally different or no background at all.

During the next weeks, I will do a GIMP painting that will illustrate how I imagine what the original “Augsburg aurochs” might have looked like.

As mentioned above, the original painting is lost. There is no trace of it after it was sold after Smith’s death in 1859. It is not known whether it still exists and where, and who owns it. I don’t know if anyone ever seriously tried to track down its way after it was sold. Maybe it is possible to find out who purchased it, and to locate descendants of the owner or find out subsequent owners if it was sold again and again. Of course it could have been destroyed. But maybe it is lurking around covered in dust on some attic instead being exhibited in a museum because it was not recognized that it doesn’t show “just some bull” but in fact an extinct animal in a more detailed way than any other known artwork. Let’s hope it still exists and will one day be rediscovered.


  1. I read before that much of Charles H.Smith's belongings were donated to a University in Plymouth, England. I hope the painting is sitting somewhere waiting for someone to realize it's importance.
    Haven't found what the other Augsburg Aurochs is.
    It's from the book Bovidae (Turi in the Czech language). Text under the picture says: Augsburg Aurochs – the only one modern picture of the Aurochs by an unknown painter, from the time around 1525 year.

    1. It's from the Rewilding Europe gallery, is it?
      I suspect that this artwork is just a copy of Hamilton Smiths drawing; it can't be the original from the 16th century because that one is was an oil painting.

    2. Dalibor Dostal, the founder of Rewilding Europe told me it was from the Czech book,
      Bovidea. The book describes it as "Augsburg" by an unknown painter.
      It's obviously not the painting that Smith described since it's an etching.
      I thought it could be a more accurate depiction of the painting by Smith, but I doubt the author would have gotten hold of it.