Animal Crackers: Exotic Creatures c1760 – 1840
This November the Royal Pavilion will unleash its latest exhibition in the Prince Regent Gallery, Exotic Creatures. I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak of it recently, while lead curator Alexandra Loske and colleagues were busy selecting key items for promotional photography.
About the Exhibition
Exotic Creatures will draw on the Royal Pavilion & Museums’ extensive collection of Georgian caricature prints, as well as paintings on loan from the Royal Collection, the British Museum and private lenders.
Among other things, the exhibition will cover the challenges of creating anatomically correct images of non-native animals in Georgian times, the general public’s fascination with exotic animals, the founding of London’s Zoological Society in 1826 and the opening of the Zoological Gardens soon after in 1828.
Royal menageries and the Polar Bear of London
Royal menageries were quite a thing for many centuries, both in Britain and overseas. The term ‘menagerie’ was coined in 17th century France, but earlier examples included Emperor Charlemagne’s menagerie during the 8th century in what’s now Germany and Holland and Henry I’s small collection of animals in Oxfordshire, including lions, leopards, lynxes, camels and a porcupine.
This exhibition will showcase some of the weird and wonderful animals that graced palaces and other regal residencies, including those held in the Tower of London, was once home to a resident polar bear, many years before his fictional cousin alighted from darkest Peru on the platform of Paddington station.
It seems quite extraordinary that when they were low on suitable food for the bear, keepers had to personally escort it down to the banks of the Thames to let it fish for its own supper!
Exotic Creatures will concentrate on the last years of the Tower’s menageries, from the 1820s to early 30s, which I’m sure will be packed with equally fascinating tidbits.
One of the exhibition’s key treasures is a charming painting (artist unknown) of a group of three liger cubs with their mother, born in Windsor. As you might have already deduced, ligers are what you get when you cross breed a lion with a tiger, and apparently you can also breed tigons too.
The painting dates from about 1824 and is believed to be one of the earliest known painting of these wonderful creatures. Exotic Creatures will be its first public airing; the liger cubs were presented to George IV shortly after they were born, hence its inclusion here.
Alexandra worked with a private collector from Brighton to secure the painting at auction in London (thus keeping it in the country) and transport back to Brighton. She also purchased print from printsellers outside of the UK.
Are you having a giraffe?
Another intriguing set of exhibits is a set of prints of giraffes with their Arabian keepers. These six lithographs, picturing scenes at Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park from 1837, were a fairly typical souvenir of the time. It shows some of the first giraffes ever brought to England in 1836, 7 years after George IV’s personal giraffe (and Britain’s first) died in 1829. You can read the full story behind these arrivals in this post
The Regent’s giraffe was part of his personal menagerie, which was kept at Sandpit Gate in Windsor Great Park. Apparently he visited it often, riding there in a pony-chaise from his “cottage” in the Park.
These days the importance of conservation is widely supported, though of course illegal hunting and poaching is still sadly rife in many parts of the world.
The Height of Fashion: La Mode à la Giraffe
The arrival of such striking and markedly exotic beasts in Europe soon sparked something of a craze for giraffes, which stretched its neck into the fashion world, as a series of fabulous illustrations of society ladies sporting giraffe-inspired hats, dresses and hair-dos demonstrates.
As you might expect this fashion – ‘La Mode (or Hair) à la giraffe’ – really took off in France but it was big here too, influencing dress, hair-styles, the choice of fabrics in general and even interior decoration.
Books and More
While many artworks will feature, the exhibition will also encompass a range of other interesting material, such as the final books published on Royal Menageries (Edward Turner Bennett’s book ‘The Tower Menagerie: Comprising the Natural History of the Animals Contained in That Establishment with Anecdotes of Their Characters and History London, 1829.), encyclopaedias with some rather strange likenesses of animals they’re attempting to picture and curios such as a special promotional token used by visitors to the park.
Pidcock’s Menagerie token, c 1796-1800. This copper token has an elephant on one side and a rhino on the other.
The Georgian era was an especially interesting time when it comes to attitudes towards nature. Darwin’s revelations on the natural world were still to come, so this was a time when animals were both a source of serious scientific scrutiny and objects of entertainment and amusement.
Despite the obvious advances we’ve made in the past two centuries, given the enduring adoration and inevitable anthropomorphism of all things cute and fuzzy, perhaps attitudes have not really changed as much as we’d like to think?
However you view it, there should be plenty of awe and awws in this exhibition.