Thursday, 17 October 2013



Jack Cowin is both a talented artist and a knowledgeable naturalist. This makes him an ideal interpreter of the natural world. Cowin’s unique hand-coloured etchings adorned with gold leaf are creative and innovative, and we at Masters Gallery have come to associate this distinct high quality work with Cowin. His ability to meticulously record the flora and fauna he observes around him always with an additional touch of elegance is good reason why his work has been featured in countless collections across North America.


In all of its guises, Art has evolved organically over the centuries. New ideas and old ones have often comingled harmoniously with the end result being something truly unique. Cowin’s work is just so; presenting fresh depictions of the creatures in the natural world with hints reminiscent of the very best that natural history in art has offered in Western tradition. Some historical citations that can be found in Jack Cowin’s work might include medieval bestiaries, and the ultra-refined natural history illustrations of the 18th and 19th centuries. Cowin has inherited and kept vibrantly alive the wonderful tradition of merging nature and art, that has had a presence in the history of art over the many centuries.

Although not related to Canadian art in particular but to Cowin’s subject matter, I thought it might be interesting to present a few historically interesting cases featuring the co-existence of nature and art in the past. The first and chronologically earliest that I think interesting is the medieval bestiary. The term ‘bestiary’ derives from the opening lines ‘Bestiarum Vocabulum’ of its predecessor, the ancient Greek compilation of animal lore called the Physiologus. Quite literally it was a book about many beasts, as were bestiaries. Bestiaries were illustrated books filled with current knowledge about numerous animals, both commonplace (like the swallow or badger) and mythological (like the mermaid or unicorn). Prevailing religious attitudes during the Middle Ages seeped into all areas of life; therefore even bestiaries were infiltrated with Christian morals. They were available as richly illustrated examples for the wealthy, or as cruder variants for laymen. The height of popularity for medieval bestiaries was in the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in France and England. One of the most complete and illustrious examples was executed in England circa 1200, called The Aberdeen Bestiary, where it is now housed at the University of Aberdeen.

Although the animals, birds and aquatic life by Jack Cowin are certainly depicted in far more heightened detail than the beasts of the bestiaries; the underlying principle aiming for accuracy was often present and the use of elaborate gilt backgrounds draws a parallel to the background of Cowin’s signature etchings.

As we move ahead to the 18th century, there were changing perceptions of the natural world and how it should be perceived. It was the Age of Enlightenment, and an enormous thirst for knowledge of the natural world was fueled by the discovery of the New World and through advancements in natural science. Such converging factors, amongst others, led to an explosive interest in depicting flora and fauna with as much authenticity as was achievable. Accurate visual aid was more efficient than lengthy descriptions of new and varying species of beasts around the world. The body of naturalists whom were extraordinarily talented artists at recording nature is large; therefore I have selected just a few artists work to exhibit the exceptional drawings of the 17th and 18th century naturalist artists. In these artists work I see the same precision that Jack Cowin presents in his works of all mediums. Of particular interest to me was the work of Maria Sibylla Merian, who made natural studies primarily from her travels to Surinam. Other noteworthy artists were Mark Catesby, American William Bartram and Sarah Stone; all active in the British Colonies in the 18th century.

No discussion of natural history illustration is complete without mention of John James Audubon’s ornithological art. I will not delve into his biography, as it is readily available. Active during the first half of the 19th century, Audubon’s work represents the peak achievement in realistic, yet beautified, natural history illustration. He contributed great progress to the field of ornithology, having himself identified approximately 25 species of birds. His painting ability left most illustration of the same genre for decades after in his debt. The culmination of his career was the illustrated Birds of America, with over 400 hand-coloured engravings of bird species. I am reminded of great 19th century ornithological artists such as Audubon, or his contemporary Edward Lear, when I see the latest watercolours by Jack Cowin.

I hope you have enjoyed my sojourn into the world of natural history illustration, and that you will enjoy all of our recent acquisitions by Jack Cowin.

By: Jill Turner


1. Jack Cowin, Raven graphite on paper

2, 3, 4, 5. A Peacock,A Unicorn Slaying, Vultures and A Yale in The Aberdeen Bestiary from the University of Aberdeen online at

6. From a Monk's sketchbook, Italian, circa 1400 (Partridge, Kingfisher, Blackbird, Pigeon, Duck, Water Rail, and House Sparrow)

7. Jack Cowin, Puffin mixed media and gold leaf

8. Jack Cowin, Sparrow mixed media and gold leaf

9. Jack Cowin, Fishing the Narrows mixed media and gold leaf

10. Maria Sibylla Merian detail in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium hand-coloured engravings, 1726 edition.

11. Jack Cowin, Bees, mixed media and gold leaf

11. Maria Sibylla Merian, "Mucuna" in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1726 edition.

12. Mark Catesby, "Little Blue Heron" in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas Islands hand-coloured engraving, 1731-1743 edition

13. Mark Catesby, "Tang Fish, Yellow Fish" in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas Islands hand-coloured engraving, 1731-1743 edition

14. Mark Catesby, "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker" in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas Islands hand-coloured engraving, 1731-1743 edition

15. William Bartram, Warmouth, watercolour and black ink, 1774

16. Sarah Stone, Grey Peacock-Pheasant, watercolour, circa 1785

17. Edward Lear, "Alexandrine Parakeet" in Illustrations of the Family Psittacidae, hand-coloured lithograph, 1832 edition.

18. Edwards Lear, "Snowy Owl" in Birds of Europe by John Gould, 1832-37

19. John James Audubon, "Red Cardinal/ Northern Cardinal" in The Birds of America 1827-1838

20. John James Audubon, "Summer Red Bird"

21. Jack Cowin, Bluebird watercolour, 2013

22. Jack Cowin, Gold Finch watercolour, 2013

Jack Cowin, Robin watercolour, 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment