On the first floor of the Royal Pavilion, in the corridor outside the Adelaide Tearooms, there is a selection of satirical Georgian prints on display. One of them entitled The Great Joss and his Playthings by “Shortshanks” Robert Seymour from 1829 pokes fun at our ageing King George IV’s interest in anything exotic and expensive.
Look closer and you can see him stroking what looks like a toy giraffe, snuggling up to him sitting on the money-spurting Chinese teapot. It was indeed a very real giraffe, in fact, the first living giraffe to have reached England’s shores.
The giraffe appears in at least four other satirical prints, all published between 1829 and 1830. When Brighton Royal Pavilion & Museums recently acquired the amazing Kenneth Baker collection of satirical prints I decided to look for the other giraffe caricatures to piece together the story of the giraffe. We have all but one of them in our collection, and while they are hilarious caricatures, the story behind the real giraffe is bizarre, moving, fascinating but also cruel.
I suggested a talk about George’s giraffe to the Friends of the Royal Pavilion, which I gave as a lecture on 22 March.
The giraffe was a diplomatic gift from Mohammed Ali, the viceroy of Egypt, in 1827. He gave a second giraffe, probably a half-sibling of George’s giraffe, to Charles X of France.
Although exotic wild animals and birds had been around in European menageries since the Middle Ages, giraffes proved to be the most elusive and unusual of wild animals. France and England allegedly drew lots as to who would get which giraffe, with the taller one going to France.
The giraffe bound for England was younger, smaller, and had probably suffered greatly on her trek, as it was later noted by vets who carried out a post mortem that she had arrived in England with already deformed limbs. The sibling giraffes parted ways in Alexandria, but had two Egyptian milk cows, two Egyptian keepers, several other African mammals and a translator each for company for the rest of their journey.
George’s giraffe, already weaker and crippled, was sent by ship to Malta, where she spent the winter. In May 1827 she boarded the Penelope Malta Trader, with a hole cut into the deck of the ship to accommodate her. She arrived at London’s Waterloo Bridge, on 11 August 1827 and put up in a warehouse, before being moved in a large container to Windsor, where George had been eagerly awaiting his new toy.
By 1827 the king had become a recluse, spending most of his time at the Royal Lodge and Virginia Water Fishing Temple in Windsor Great Park, away from the public eye. His health declining, he devoted himself to his mistress Lady Conyngham and was often seen riding in his pony-chaise to his menagerie of “gentle animals” at Sandpit Gate.
He added the giraffe to this menagerie, which must have caused him great excitement, given his interest in anything exotic. Alas, neither the poor giraffe nor George lasted very long thereafter.
The giraffe suffered badly from the injuries sustained on the long journey from deepest Africa to Windsor, was perhaps given an inappropriate diet, and died in 1829.
The satirical prints tell the story of the demise of the giraffe, clearly associating her with the much ridiculed King. One print shows Lady Conyngham and George hoisting the giraffe, now unable to stand unaided, up to a specially built frame. The images of the giraffe are mostly satirical, unsparing, attacking her owner through ridiculing the creature.
We see her again in John Doyle’s Le Mort, lying dead, being mourned by George, his mistress and Lord Eldon. And even after George’s death in June 1830 the satirists did not leave the giraffe alone: in Heath’s Packing up!!! we see Lady Conyngham grabbing valuables when she is kicked out of Windsor Castle. Among the treasures is the skeleton of the giraffe. There are a number of serious depictions of the English giraffe, mostly commissioned by George and, sadly, not in our collection.
Two are in the Royal Collection, of which one, an exquisite oil painting by the animal painter Jacques-Laurent Agasse, is usually on display at the Queen’s Gallery.
After her death George’s giraffe was stuffed, by talented taxidermist, John Gould. It is uncertain what happened to the stuffed giraffe and her skeleton, but they were most likely used for research purposes by the newly founded Zoological society.
In the 1840s three stuffed giraffes were displayed on the landing of the first British Museum in Montagu House, but it is not certain whether one of them was George’s giraffe.
Alexandra Loske, Guide and Researcher