Joseph (Mathias) Wolf was born on the 22nd January 1820 in the little village of Mörz, near Koblenz, Germany. His father, Anton Wolf (1788-1859) was a farmer and headman of the village. As a boy, Wolf loved spending time outdoors, observing and sketching the local wildlife. Sometimes, he would shoot specimens to dissect them at home in order to achieve a better understanding of their anatomy, plumage or fur. He would also capture live birds and mammals to draw them. He built special traps to catch large birds of prey without harming them. His obsession, apparently, earned him the unflattering nickname ‘bird fool’ from his father. Watching wildlife became a lifelong passion and, although he killed some for study, he abhorred the mindless slaughter of animals that many Victorians regarded as a ‘manly’ pastime and sport. According to his biographer and friend Alfred Herbert Palmer (1853-1931), son of artist Samuel Palmer (1805-81), Wolf accused these ‘sportsmen’ of having “no desire to know about a thing. Their only desire is to kill it.” He also called man “the most destructive and carnivorous animal in the world.”
Although his aptitude for drawing and painting was noticed early at home and school, no one seems to have fostered this talent and after he left school, he first worked on the family farm. However, when he was sixteen he managed to persuade his father to apprentice him for three years to the brothers Becker who were lithographers in Koblenz. There, he was soon given the chance to design trade circulars thanks to his talent and learnt to transfer his own drawings onto stone and to process the prints. After finishing his apprenticeship he returned home for a year, creating miniature watercolours of birds during that time. Whilst trying to find employment during a trip to Frankfurt, he had a chance meeting with the ornithologist and explorer Eduard Rüppell (1794-1884). Rüppell proved the stepping-stone to Wolf’s career as a professional animal and bird painter. He was so impressed by the young man that he gave him an introduction to Johann Kaup ((1803-73), the director of the grand ducal natural history museum of Darmstadt and also let him create illustrations for his Systematische Übersicht der Vögel Nord-Ost-Afrikas (1845). Hence, Wolf moved to Darmstadt and found a job as a lithographer with the publisher Ernst Kern. Kaup took Wolf’s drawings to a conference in Leyden where they attracted the attention of Dr. Hermann Schlegel (1804-84), assistant at the city’s museum. Schlegel commissioned Wolf to draw some images for his and A. H. Verster de Wulverhorst’s Traité de fauconnerie (1844-53). Wolf moved to Leyden and concentrated henceforth on his work as a painter rather than lithographer.
Back in Darmstadt, he made up his mind to receive more formal training and thus attended the local art school and in 1847 the Antwerp Academy to learn how to draw and paint in oils. Due to the 1848 unrests in continental Europe, he decided to relocate to England in February that year; he refused to join the army as many young men did. Johann Kaup had promoted Wolf’s work in London and had recommended him to eminent institutions such as the British Museum and the Zoological Society of London. Almost immediately after his arrival, he started working at the British Museum for George Robert Gray (1808-72), assistant at the Natural History Department and Fellow of the Zoological Society. The ornithologist and fellow bird painter John Gould (1804-81) had already asked him for a small watercolour and also ordered illustrations for his Birds of Britain (1862-73).
Gould and Wolf, who described Gould as the “most uncouth man I ever knew”, were never close friends, but they worked together on projects amicably enough and went to Norway together in 1856 to specifically explore the fieldfare. Wolf made many more important acquaintances and friendships in his new home. Among them were David William Mitchell, secretary of the Zoological Society, whom he assisted illustrating Gray’s Genera of Birds (1844-49), Edwards Barlett, Superintendent of the Zoological Gardens, and the famous animal painter Sir Edward Landseer (1802-72) who helped him to exhibit his picture Woodcocks seeking Shelter at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1849. This painting proved very popular and the artist managed to sell a variety of works depicting woodcocks. Wolf exhibited a total of fourteen pictures at the Royal Academy and seven at the British Institution. He also showed his work at the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours where he was elected member in 1874. He soon had the reputation of being one of the best and foremost naturalist painters of the day. His friend, fellow artist Charles Whymper (1853-1941), claimed that Wolf was the first artist to have a full-time career solely as a wildlife painter. Landseer called him “the best all-round animal painter that ever lived.”
His numerous commissions kept Joseph Wolf very busy throughout his life. In 1850, he spent two months at Knowsley where the 13th Earl Lord Derby (1775-1851) president of the Zoological Society from 1831 to 1851, had engaged him to paint and draw the birds and animals in his menagerie and specimen in his museum. In 1848, the Zoological Society of London first commissioned images for their publications Proceedings (until 1880) and in 1862 for Transactions (until 1877). They also decided in 1852 to keep a record of their most interesting exemplars and asked Wolf to create watercolour drawings which were turned into two series of hand-coloured folio lithographs. The first 50 plates were produced between 1856 and 1861 and the other 50 between 1861 and 1867. The newly founded British Ornithologists’ Union requested Wolf to draw an ibis for their journal Ibis. The first issue appeared in January 1859 with Wolf’s design. During the 1860s, he produced drawings for the American zoologist Daniel Giraud Elliot (1835-1915), co-founder of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In 1878 he had the honour of painting a pet bullfinch belonging to Queen Victoria. The picture was a birthday present commissioned by the Marquise of Lorne and Princess Louise. These are only a few examples of his output; an extensive list can be found in Palmer’s biography of Wolf.
Although he was trained as a lithographer, he left the transfer of his images onto stone to others quite early on in his career. The prints would usually be hand-coloured. The lithographers also generally added the backgrounds. However, Wolf was often frustrated by the results, as he not only endeavoured to draw the animals accurately, but also required the backgrounds, their natural habitat, to be realistic and correct. Dutchman Joseph Smit (1836-1929), for example, got on well with Wolf and started copying the older artist’s designs around 1866, the year he arrived from the Netherlands. Just like Wolf, he had worked with Dr Schlegel in Leyden. It appears that he executed the prints to Wolf’s satisfaction. Wolf worked in watercolours, oils and charcoal – his favourite drawing material. No matter what technique he used, the outcome was always highly appreciated and praised by his patrons. William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919), brother of Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) wrote to Palmer that the brotherhood was “delighted with his acute and minute observation, and delicate precision of rendering”. His painstaking depictions and in-depth knowledge of nature and animal behaviour made him an exceptional artist that set him apart from those who would only copy dead specimens in museums. He would show his animals engaged in their natural activities and also imbued them with their own individual characters without anthropomorphising them.
The School of Art collection has 49 images by Joseph Wolf, 47 of those are wood engravings taken from 19th century periodicals such as Once a Week, Sunday Magazine, Good Words and Quiver. In most of them Wolf shows the animals behaving naturally, however, in Skatta (PL4894) and Our Pets (PL4880) he slightly anthropomorphised them. It is possible that this exception to the rule was at a publisher’s request or went with a particular text that required the aberration. The online images unfortunately fail to do the wood engravings justice; the detail and accuracy of the depictions only really become clear when looking at the original prints. Jackson explains that over 300 of Wolf’s drawings were transformed into wood engravings between 1853 and 1883. However, Palmer questions the quality of the reproductions of artists’ originals in periodicals. He does not dismiss “the beautiful art of wood-engraving” as such – as he is anxious to point out – but nevertheless explains that due to lack of training, certain engraving traditions and the limitations that engraving tools might pose “wood-engraving, as applied to such work as the best of Wolf’s and its kind, has failed on the whole to render it truthfully. It has not failed in a slight degree. It has failed so signally that, again and again the artist has suffered torture.”
With regard to Palmer’s misgivings about wood engraving reproductions, we are very lucky to also have two original paintings by Joseph Wolf in the School of Art collection to appreciate his skills. One is a watercolour of a leopard (WD452) staring out of the undergrowth. Another oil painting, a young Bacchus with a leopard (OP155), was created in cooperation with fellow German artist Wilhelm Kümpel (1822-80). Both of them were friends with George Powell of Nanteos (1842-82) and both pictures were part of the Powell bequest to the university. The scene of Bacchus and the leopard in front of a Mediterranean background seems far removed from Wolf’s usual style, so it is possible that he rendered his services as an act of friendship either to Kümpel or Powell or both.
Wolf appears to have been well liked by his collaborators and had many friends. He would visit his native hometown every year where he would enjoy watching birds and animals just as he had as a boy. He also travelled to other destinations such as Scotland to observe the local wildlife. He never married but seems to have had a daughter, Helen, born by his landlady in 1855, whilst living in Howland, Fitzroy Square. In 1860 he moved to a studio in Berners Street where there was more space for him and his numerous pets. It is said that one of his tame bullfinches once got caught up in Charles Darwin’s beard during a visit. The artist provided images for Darwin’s The Expressions of the Emotions of Man and Animals (1872). His final move was in 1878 to a studio at 2 Primrose Hill Studios, Fitzroy Road, Regents Park. There, he was close to the Zoo where he enjoyed sketching the animals. He died at his home on 20th April 1899 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
(Curatorial & Technical Assistant)
(Click on images to enlarge them.)
De Maré, Eric. The Victorian Woodblock Illustrators. Gordon Fraser, 1980.
Engen, Rodney K. Dictionary of Victorian Wood Engravers. Chatwick-Healy Ltd., 1985.
Jackson, C. E. Bird Illustrators: Some Artists in Early Lithography. H. F. & G. Witherby Ltd., 1975.
Lambourne, Maureen. John Gould – Bird Man. Osberton Productions Ltd., 1987.
Sauer, Gordon C. John Gould the Bird Man: A Chronology and Bibliography. Henry Sotheran Ltd., 1982.