Penguin by Forster

Johann George Adam Forster (1754-1794)
Drawing overview
The Chinstrap Penguin
The Forster Drawings Collection
Exhibition and publication details
References and further reading

Johann George Adam Forster (1754-1794)

Johann George Adam Forster (known as George Forster) was born in Germany in 1754 and was brought to England in 1766 by his father Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798), who was a scientist. They settled initially in Warrington, Lancashire where his father found employment as a teacher. In 1770, father and son moved to London, little expecting that they would soon have the opportunity to participate in an exhilarating sea voyage around the world.

Captain James Cook was about to set sail on his second voyage of discovery with instructions from the British government to either find the hypothetical southern continent or bring back proof that it did not exist.

Following a disagreement with Cook, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) one of England's most prominent aristocrats, with a strong professional interest in natural history, withdrew his scientific party from the expedition at the last moment. A hasty search was made to find civilians to fill the vacant positions and J. R. Forster, aged 42, who had become a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1772, was appointed as the expedition's naturalist. George, now 17 years old, filled the post of assistant to his father and natural history artist.

The ships, HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure, set sail in 1772. It was a momentous journey lasting three years and was to be as exciting and rewarding scientifically, geographically and anthropologically as the first voyage. Many animal and plant specimens were collected for the first time.

The expedition was also historically important for it was the first time anyone had crossed the Antarctic Circle and had sailed so far south. The crew were therefore the first to observe the rich zoological resources of the cold, southern waters - including seals, whales, penguins, seabirds, and unusual fish. Despite the privations on board ship, the cramped conditions in the cabins and the discomforts of the cold, the Forsters kept detailed diaries and scientific lists, with George drawing and painting the animals and plants that he and his father collected.

The ships returned to England in 1775, bringing back the huge scientific collections and drawings, which Joseph Banks took possession of. Cook reported that there was no great land mass in the southern hemisphere and wrote the official account of the expedition. George Forster and his father also published books of the voyage on their return. George Forster was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1777.

The Forsters went back to Germany where they held distinguished careers. George died in 1794, aged 40, and his father in 1798.

Drawing overview

This painting of the Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica), is one of George Forster's finished paintings. His father had gone hunting for penguins on 27 December 1772 and after a tough struggle, returned to the ship with the bird. George Forster drew the bird large and bold, against a truly Antarctic landscape with cold blue water and iceflows. Of all Forster's paintings, this is one of the most atmospheric for conveying the cold and solitude of the southern hemisphere.

J.R. Forster's description of the Chinstrap Penguin, a new species, was published in 1781 together with an engraved plate copied from George's drawing. It was one of many new animal species discovered in the course of the expedition, but only one of a very small number that were described in contemporary literature.

It was very many years later that J.R. Forster's list of all the animals discovered on the voyage was published posthumously in 1844, by which time he had been pre-empted on many occasions by subsequent discoveries of the animals. Unfortunately, in the eighteenth century, there were just not the resources and expertise available to work on large collections and publish the detailed scientific results of such expeditions. This situation was not to improve until the nineteenth century.

The Chinstrap Penguin

Chinstrap Penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica)can be distinguished from other penguins by the distinctive narrow black band under the chin. They live in Antarctic waters where they feed on krill and other crustaceans, and small fish. They breed in large colonies of hundreds of thousands of birds, on islands in the southern oceans and the Antarctic Peninsula, where the birds gather from October to November.

The birds construct nests made of a round platform of stones on which the female bird lays two eggs. The male and female birds take it in turns to sit on the eggs for up to 40 days. After hatching the young birds are fed by the parents for three months, when they are ready to live independently.

Find out more about the Chinstrap Penguin.

The Forster Drawings Collection

By the end of Cook's second voyage, George Forster had completed 271 zoological paintings, and 420 botanical paintings.

When the expedition first sailed, George was drawing European birds, probably under his father's tuition, he showed good observational skills. Initially, his style was more constrained and defined, like a neat draughtsman, but as the voyage progressed, George's work shows a freer hand, with more fluid lines flowing from his pencil. Such drawings, with a quick watercolour wash, are the most pleasing aesthetically in the collection.

Many of the drawings were never finished because of other pressures on George's time. There are a few pencil sketches, many pencil sketches with watercolours applied in critical places to bring out important characteristics, and a relatively small number of finished paintings. Most drawings are signed and dated by George.

The drawings were sold to Sir Joseph Banks. After Banks' death in 1820 they were presented to the British Museum in 1827. They were transferred to the Natural History Museum in 1881.

Exhibition and publication details

This drawing has not previously been displayed to the public.

References and further reading

Beaglehole, J. C. (1961)The Journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of Discovery. Volume 2: The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure 1772-1775. Hakluyt Society: Cambridge. 1021pp.

Del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 1, p.156. Lynx Editions: Barcelona. 696pp.

Forster, J. G. A. (1777) A Voyage round the world in HMS Resolution, commanded by Capt. J. Cook, during ... 1772-5. B. White, etc.: London. 2 vols.

Forster, J. R. (1778) Observations made during a voyage round the world on physical geography, natural history and ethic philosophy. London. 649 pp. ; 1996 reprint, edited by N. Thomas ... [et al.], University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu. 446pp.

Forster, J. R. (1781) Historia Aptenodytae. Generis Avium orbi Australi proprii. Commentationes Societatis Regiae Scientiarum Gottingensis, vol. 3, 1781, pp.121-148.

Forster, J. R. (1982) The Resolution Journal of Johann Reinhold Forster, 1772-1775. Edited by M.E. Hoare. Hakluyt Society: London. 4 vols.

Hoare, M. E. (1976) The Tactless Philosopher. Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-98). Hawthorn Press: Melbourne. 419pp.

Lysaght, A. (1959) Some eighteenth century bird paintings in the library of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820). Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Historical Series, vol. 1, pp.251-371.

Peterson, R. T. (1979) Penguins. Houghton Mifflin: Boston. 238pp.

Sparks J. & Soper, T. (1987) Penguins. 2nd ed. David & Charles: Newton Abbot; Devon. 246pp.

Stonehouse, B. (1975) The biology of penguins. Macmillan: London. 555pp.

Whitehead, P. J. P. (1978) The Forster collection of Zoological Drawings in the British Museum (Natural History). Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Historical Series, vol. 6, pp.25-47.

Williams, T. D. (1995) The Penguins: Spheniscidae. (Bird families of the world, no. 3). Oxford University Press: Oxford. 295pp.