The incredible, psychedelic tropical fish fantasy of Louis Renard & Samuel Fallours : 1719’s Natural history of the rarest curiosities of the Indian Sea.
Histoire naturelle des plus rares curiositez de la mer des Indes (1719), is one of the very earliest colour publications of fish known to man. It’s also the most outrageously exaggerated fake news known in natural history science.
In 1719, the Amsterdam book dealer, atlas maker, medicine merchant and one-time spy Louis Renard knew that no-one in Europe knew anything about marine life in the East Indies. Perhaps that’s why he was able to get away with it, and why he tried so hard to cover himself.
The vivid and fantastical creatures in Natural history of the rarest curiosities of the Indian Sea were painted by Samuel Fallours, a soldier-turned-clergyman’s assistant who lived on the Indonesian island of Ambon, the seat of the Dutch East India Company. Local fishermen would bring their freshly caught fish direct to Fallours, who painted them and sold the images to wealthy Company officials and Europeans with an eye for a bizarre memento.
In the early 1700s, these tropical creations by Fallours made their way from Indonesia to Amsterdam, and the publishing house of Louis Renard.
Did Renard, who had never set foot in the East Indies himself, believe in the psychedelic fish of Fallours? Or did he simply see an opportunity to garner some guilders for his publishing house?
In the book’s preface, Renard stresses (over several pages) that the images are accurate reflections of the creatures illustrated. He was dubious enough of Fallours however, to obtain an affidavit from him which declared, “that the fishes included in this collection were drawn and painted by me from nature. This was done to the best of my ability, not believing that the human arts can express the beauty of the colours of these fishes when caught alive…”.
Fallours was lying of course. The captions to his illustrations give him away. Many of these account don’t exactly tie up with what we know today. There’s the Spiny Lobster that lives in the mountains and climbs trees to eat fruit, dislikes snakes, and lays red-spotted eggs the size of a pidgeon’s. Fallours also claims he kept a pet frogfish alive in his home (out of water) for three days, and that it followed him around like a puppy. Perhaps the best one is the pipefish that whistles loudly and can be folded up and put in yours pocket like a handkerchief, which unfolds to its foriginal shape when removed.
In fact, none of these images are completely realistic. Most of them are total fabrications. Yet it’s clear Fallors has actually seen some tropical fish,
So what are they, these works of Samuel Fallours? Creative licence? Exaggeration? Fun? Fraud?
We’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. What they are is fantastic.
Here’s to you Mr. Fallours.
You got away with it.
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