ANIMAL ART OF THE DAY for World Turtle Day: an unusual tortoise portrait from 18th Century England, and its connection to Ottoman Turkey

May 23rd is World Turtle Day!

This was an interesting find in the rooms full of old British portraiture art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even the signage acknowledges how unusual this painting is!

Still Life With a Tortoise, 1743
possibly by Thomas Black (English, 1715-1777)
oil on canvas, 74.9 x 96.5 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art

(photos by author)

Fortunately, its gallery sign summarizes the contents of the hard-to-read note, which tells this tortoise’s tale:

This unusual painting celebrates a British gentleman’s collection of exotic wonders. According to the note at left, the tortoise (probably of the Mediterranean spur-thighed variety) came from the Turkish seaport of Smyrna in 1685, lived fifty-eight more years in Bayfield, England, and laid the nine unfertilized eggs seen behind her. No mention is made of the shells strewn on the ground, but many are undoubtedly imports as well.

The accumulation and visual documentation of these marvels perfectly suit the growing interest in observation and classification of the natural world in the 1700s.

[Philadelphia Museum of Art]

The tortoise is also identified as “probably of the spur-thighed variety,” which presumably refers to the Greek Tortoise (Testudo graeca). There are a number of subspecies within the species complex, with the exact taxonomy still unresolved. Based on its alleged geographic origin and general coloration, I would guess this may be T. g. ibera, the Asia Minor Tortoise, or perhaps T. g. terrestris, the Mesopotamian Tortoise, but I couldn’t say for sure…any herpetologists out there want to have a crack at this ID??

(Looks like a conchologist could have some fun trying to identify all the shells in this painting too…)

UPDATE! I reached out to Matthew P. Bettleheim and Ertan Taskavak, authors of a paper that identified the tortoises depicted in the Ottoman paintings The Tortoise Trainer (two versions, 1906 and 1907) by Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910). Together, they affirmed my first guess that this is indeed T. g. ibera, the Asia Minor Tortoise – the same subspecies found in Bey’s paintings!

Osman Hamdi Bey
The Tortoise Trainer, 1906 version
oil on canvas, 221.5 × 120 cm
Pera Museum, Istanbul, Turkey
Osman Hamdi Bey
The Tortoise Trainer, 1907 version
oil on canvas, 136 x 87 cm
private collection

Details of the tortoises in both paintings – note there is an extra one in the second version!

Asia Minor Tortoises (T. g. ibera) – note the natural variation in shell coloration, and compare to the lighter color seen in the English painting and the darker colors seen in the Ottoman paintings.
Image: © 2017 Chris Leone/Garden State Tortoise LLC [educational use]

So what we have are two (three) different paintings, made on two different continents by two different artists in two different centuries…but each with its tortoise subjects rendered in enough naturalistic detail to allow for a precise identification of both to the same subpecies level! This, in turn, enriches our understanding of both the art historical contexts and the animals themselves.

For example, as its common name suggests, this tortoise is native to Anatolia (though its range extends into surrounding regions of the Balkans and Western Asia), the heart of the Ottoman Empire and now the main landmass of modern-day Türkiye; and the tortoise in the first painting is said to have been imported from Smyrna (now İzmir), a major Anatolian seaport then under control of the Ottomans. This means that the tortoises in the Ottoman paintings were native homebodies, while the tortoise in the English painting was a long-distance traveler via the intercontinental exotic animal trade. (Of course, it likely didn’t have to travel as far as others, as it was a native species in the port city it was picked up from, unlike an animal which had been transported from across Africa or further east from Asia, for example). Additionally, in the Ottoman paintings, there a multiple tortoises of different sizes/ages, suggesting they were being bred. Meanwhile, in the English painting, there is just a single specimen, though we are given the important information that it was a female who laid eggs and lived for 58 years with her English owner. Ertan also suggested that given the number of eggs laid, she was likely in her 30s, so depending on how soon after her arrival she laid them, she may have lived into her 90s!

Many thanks to both Matthew and Ertan for offering their herpetological expertise and ID confirmation, and be sure to check out both their original paper and Bettleheim’s follow-up piece for more insights into Bey’s tortoise paintings:

Bettelheim, Matthew P. and Ertan Taskavak. 2006. The Tortoise and the Tulip – Testudo graeca ibera and Osman Hamdi’s “The Tortoise Trainer”. Bibliotheca Herpetologica. 6(2): pp 11-15.

Bettelheim, Matthew  P. 2020. Osman Hamdi’s “The Tortoise Trainer” – The Tortoise and the Tulip Revisited. Bibliotheca Herpetologica 14(3): 15-18.

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