Graham Leslie McCallum

The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man

Which Animal has been the most influential to Zoomorphic Design?

Several years back, I finished a sourcebook on zoomorphic design called ‘4000 Animal, Bird and Fish Motifs’. This entailed a year’s research into the historic cultures, styles and movements that used animals as inspiration for their art. After an untold number of hours spent poring through musty books in chilly libraries; and months spent carefully drawing, methodically compiling and comprehensively indexing the motifs – I sent off the collection to my publishers in London for printing and distribution.

After this exertion – I was left wondering which of the animals I had captured in pen and ink had been the most popular to the many designers and craftsmen over the millennia.

In my files were 4000 animal motifs, ranging from the Palaeolithic, the Neolithic, the civilizations of the Middle East, from the Chinese, Japanese, Nomadic Steppe Tribes, Egyptians, the Aegean cultures, Byzantine, Medieval, Islamic, right through to the Arts and Craft and Art Deco movements. I knew from my research that certain animals like the Deer, the Lion and the Horse were in the starting blocks; but – which of these out-performed the rest? I then began the task of tallying the motifs. Perhaps we would have a clear winner?


1st.  Horse – 161

2nd.  Lion – 128

3rd.  Deer – 109

4th.  Dog – 103

5th.  Bovine – 96

6th.  Ibex – 65

7th.  Hare – 56

8th.  Boar – 34

From this count, one may deduce – the horse to be the animal most inspirational to artists, with the lion a close second.This is of course no scientific census, simply because my own prejudicial nature might have influenced me into selecting more horse designs. Another influencing factor might simply be that many deer motifs were so similar to each other, that there was not much point in duplication. Another skewing factor in the popularity race was that certain animals (like the deer) were species known to most civilizations, cultural groups and movements, and as a consequence, would naturally score high.

My conclusion – after considering all the factors, is that the horse has been the most inspirational of all the animal species. The reasons for their popularity are self evident to the historian, for they have contributed to the rapid movement of peoples, cultures and armies. Palaeolithic man certainly represented them often enough on the walls of their caves. The horse was of course their primary food source. To later cultures, they were useful and speedy beasts of burden and draught, in obedient service to mankind. However (as an artist) my estimation for their favour is simply that horses are very beautiful creatures, Their graceful shapes, full forms, elegant lines, and energetic movements, lend themselves wonderfully to design; like the pen and ink drawing (below) of a horse taken from a Palaeolithic cave painting. I must concur with all the creatives of yesteryear. 

Palaeolithic Horse, Cave painting

The Lion, a species confined to the Middle East, India and Africa scored surprisingly high. An example of this popularity is the image of lion (below) taken from a monumental Babylonian sculpture. This felines influence was much greater and wider than its geographical range. I am certain that Medieval Artists in Europe never saw a lion in real-life fur and fang. This did not stop them from capturing this beast in stone and on manuscript. Their popularity was perpetuated by reputation alone – by hearsay, legend and story, resulting in many amusing and naive representations. This naivety is apparent as late as the 1867 erecting of the Trafalgar Square monument in London. The recumbent lions rest in a fashion wholly unnatural to lions in a zoo or the wild, in truth more as long-legged hounds do. Of interest – Felines as a group (lions, tigers, cats, leopards, jaguars) accounted for 203 of the designs in “4000 Animal, Bird and Fish Motifs”, indeed – far greater than equines, bovines, rodents or antelopes.

A Babylonian Lion , sculpture

And what of man’s closest companion – the Dog. This is the only animal that every civilization culture and people were domestically acquainted with. Unsurprisingly – they rate high on the list, like this motif (below) of a recumbent mastiff-type bitch and her suckling puppies from Babylonia.

A Mastiff dog with four puppoes, Babylonian

Bovines too are understandably popular subjects. Their powerful forms, curved horns and wavy dewlaps have been inspirational to artists and craftsmen. They make an early and bold appearance in Palaeolithic art, as in the image of a bison below.

Palaeolithic painting of a Bovine

The last four animals to cross the finish line are quite surprising – the deer, the Ibex, the Hare and the Boar. All were hunted for food, the first in Europe, the second in Persia, the third in the Middle East and the latter in Europe.

The Deer makes it to the finish line in fourth position. The minimalist pen and ink drawing below is of a rutting Stag taken from a Palaeolithic cave painting in Europe. What artist (or hunter for that matter) can resist an animal with such magnificent antlers and such striking form? The female of the species is also popular for its refined elegance. This animal made a popular return in the 20th Century Art Deco Movement, where their graceful forms were represented in sculpture and poster.

Palaeolithic painting of a stag, deer

The image (below) is of an Ibex taken from a Neolithic source in Persia..

A Neolithic motif of an Ibex, Samarra, Mesopotamia The motif (below) is of a Hare nibbling on herbage. It was taken form an Islamic ceramic vessel.

An Islamic motif of a Hare

In 8th and last position is the Boar. The menacing image below is of a tusked boar created by a Celtic artist from forested Europe.

A Celtic Boar design

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: