“The greatest curiosities I have ever seen” – The story of a litter of exotic big cats that caught the eye of King George IV

One of the stars of the Exotic Creatures exhibition at the Royal Pavilion (14 November 2015 to 28 February 2016) is a painting of creatures that had never before been seen in England. It shows Three ‘liger’ Cubs, the offspring of a lion and a tigress, who were born in the travelling menagerie of Thomas Atkins on 24 or 28 October 1824 at Windsor. The liger cubs – two males and one female – were possibly the first in Britain. Their births caused a sensation and the press reported soon after that they had already ‘attracted hundreds of spectators, being the only instance of the kind that ever occurred.’

Painting of Three 'liger' cubs, bred between a lion and a tigress at Windsor Great Park in October 1824
Three ‘liger’ cubs, bred between a lion and a tigress at Windsor Great Park in October 1824. Collection Stephen Pavey.

 

Lions and tigers can only interbreed in captivity, as they live on different continents. If ligers survive until adulthood they are often bigger and heavier than either parent, making them the largest hybrid cats. Male ligers can grow to the size of a pony and weigh over half a tonne. Most male ligers are infertile, so they very rarely procreate, and are considered to be of a gentle nature, due to the lack of testosterone. If the father is a tiger and the mother a lion, the offspring are called ‘tigons’.

Painting of The Nubian Giraffe, Jacques-Laurent Agasse, 1827. Courtesy ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2015
The Nubian Giraffe, Jacques-Laurent Agasse, 1827. Courtesy ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2015

Several artists flocked to study and paint the unusual hybrids of Atkins’ menagerie, among them the famous animal painter Jacques-Laurent Agasse (now at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut), who a few years later was commissioned by George IV to paint an even more exotic creature: the Nubian giraffe given to the king as a gift by the Pasha of Egypt (this large painting is on loan from the Royal Collection and hangs opposite the Three ‘liger’ cubs’).

Jacques-Laurent Agasse, 1767–1849, Swiss, active in Britain (from 1800), Group of Whelps Bred between a Lion and a Tigress, 1825, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Jacques-Laurent Agasse, 1767–1849, Swiss, active in Britain (from 1800), Group of Whelps Bred between a Lion and a Tigress, 1825, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Our painting is cautiously attributed to Richard Barrett Davis (1782 – 1854), who had strong connection with the royal family from 1789 onwards, but it has previously also been linked to James Northcote (1746 – 1831). The cubs are shown here playing with their mother, with the father looking on from behind bars, but the tigress reportedly refused to let them suckle. A female terrier was drafted in as a whet nurse, which is included in Agasse’s painting.  George IV, whose private menagerie was nearby at Sandpit Gate in Windsor Great Park, heard of the birth of the ligers and immediately asked to see them. They were duly presented to him at the Royal Cottage in the Park. The papers reported that he called them ‘lion-tigers’, took one of the cubs in his arms and commented that they were the greatest curiosities he had ever seen.

Atkins left Windsor with his menagerie after a few weeks and appears to have made the most of this royal connection, advertising the liger cubs as having been blessed by the King with the words ‘Long may you live and prosper, and be beneficial to your master.’ This, however, was not to be, as they died within less than a year, but the same lion and tigress produced five more litters between 1825 and 1833. Most of these ligers cubs only lived for a few months and the fifth litter, born 1831 at Kensington, was shown to the young Princess Victoria (later Queen Victoria) and her mother, the Duchess of Kent. King William IV, too, asked to be shown liger cubs born in 1837 in a different menagerie.

The liger cubs featured greatly in 19th century literature. Their story was told and illustrated with images in James Rennie’s The Menageries (1829), Robert Huish’s The Wonders of the Animal Kingdom (1830), in Thomas Landseer’s Characteristic Sketches of Animals (1832), in John George Wood’s Illustrated Natural History (1853, 1874) and many other publications. . At the end of the 19th century attempts of systematic interbreeding of lions and tigers were carried out at the Zoological Gardens at Dublin and in 1896 an account of the history of ligers in Britain – beginning with the litter in this painting – was published in Richard Lydekker’s A Hand-Book to the Carnivora (Lloyd’s Natural History).

Picture of The stuffed Lion-Tiger, from: Richard Lydekker, Lloyd's Natural History: A Hand-Book to the Carnivora. Part I. Cats, Civets and Mongooses, London, 1896
The stuffed Lion-Tiger, from: Richard Lydekker, Lloyd’s Natural History: A Hand-Book to the Carnivora. Part I. Cats, Civets and Mongooses, London, 1896
Two of the liger cubs in Atkins' menagerie in December 1827. From James Rennie?s The Menageries (1829)
Two of the liger cubs in Atkins’ menagerie in December 1827. From James Rennie?s The Menageries (1829)
The Lion, Tigress and cubs. Hand-coloured etching. From Robert Huish?s The Wonders of the Animal Kingdom. London, 1830
The Lion, Tigress and cubs. Hand-coloured etching. From Robert Huish?s The Wonders of the Animal Kingdom. London, 1830

The painting on display here has probably never before been shown in a public exhibition. It was recently included in a Sotheby’s auction sale of old masters, and acquired by Stephen Pavey, a local collector and supporter of the Royal Pavilion. It is slightly smaller in size and by a less accomplished artist than Agasse’s work, but is nevertheless extremely charming and adds another dimension to the liger cubs story, as it is the only one that shows the tigress and her cubs in playful movement. It would not have been possible for us to borrow the Agasse painting from the Yale Center for British Art, and we are therefore extremely grateful to Mr Pavey for having purchased the painting with the aim to support the Exotic Creatures exhibition.

Alexandra Loske, Curator of Exotic Creatures

  • Alexandra Loske will give two ‘Bite-Size Museum’ talks (free with museum admission) about Exotic Creatures, at which she will show additional objects that did not make it into the display and focus on ceramic pieces and printed sources. The first will take place on Tuesday, 5 January 2016, the second on Tuesday 16 February. Please note that the talks will in the Willett Collection of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, not in the Prince Regent’s Gallery.