From the end of July 2016 until early 2017 there will be a display on bears in history, art and popular culture on the North Balcony of Brighton Museum. It is curated by Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Science at the Booth Museum, assisted by colleagues from a variety of teams.
Lee asked me to contribute to a ‘Bear Discovery Day’ on 3 August and this was a good opportunity for me to look back at any bear-related material and objects I used for the Exotic Creatures exhibition at the Royal Pavilion earlier this year.
In the Georgian and for much of the Victorian era bears were not considered cute or cuddly (the teddy bear as toy was “invented” much later) but mostly known to the public as performing animals in urban areas, often paraded by exotically dressed owners, and in the very cruel context of bear-baiting. Many depictions of bears from that period present them as fierce and dangerous creatures, sometimes tamed, but always shackled, muzzled or collared. A number of ceramic figures in the Willett Collection of Popular Pottery in Brighton Museum depict this then popular form of entertainment. Until around 1830 you would also have been able to see bears (mostly black and brown bears) in public menageries, for example at the Tower in London, and at Exeter ‘Change in The Strand. Bears were also bred commercially for the production of bear fat, which was used for greasing wigs and moustaches.
Attitudes to how animals should be kept and treated changed towards the end of the Georgian era, coinciding with the founding of the Zoological Society London in 1826 and the opening of the Society’s gardens in Regent’s Park in 1828, which George IV greatly supported. The Society was dedicated to scientific study and research and was also concerned about better conditions for the animals. However, some early pictures of the bear enclosure still show visitors and keepers poking the animals with sticks to provoke fierce reactions. Although bear-baiting and other extremely cruel performances became less common, animals were still being paraded around fairs and in pageants and shown off at inns and public houses.
Several attempts were made to establish a zoo in Brighton, but none lasted long. In 1822 Ireland’s Gardens opened just north of St Peter’s Church, on land owned by Thomas Read Kemp. The pleasure gardens were never quite finished and James Ireland sold them after a few years. In the early 1830s they were under new ownership and advertised as ‘Zoological Gardens’, but these, too, were short-lived and the grounds closed in 1833. In a book published just before the closure the author J.D. Parry writes, ‘The collection of animals is at present small, and kept in a temporary place, but it is very well managed. It consists of two young tigers, two fine leopards, a panther, hyaena, a lynx, two Russian bears, foreign goats, deer, lamas, monkeys, &c. &c. The lion and the elephant are still wanting.’ Parry also mentions that there were plans to ‘orientalise’ a number of buildings in the grounds.
The Royal Zoological Gardens on the site of Ireland’s Gardens seen in this print were never built as envisaged here, but the assembly of vaguely Chinese structures is typical of both 18th century pleasure gardens and 19th century zoo architecture. Look closely and you can see the bear enclosure in the bottom left of the image. Of this grand design, probably proposed in the early 1830s, only the south gate, topped by figures of lions, remains today. The site is now occupied by Park Crescent (built in 1849) and its gardens.
In or around 1936 a small zoo was opened at the newly built Withdean Stadium in Brighton. It closed during the war but re-opened in 1948 as Withdean Zoological Gardens. In 1949 Brighton papers reported that the zoo boasted ‘he largest collection of animals on the south coast ‘, including ‘Russian and Himalayan bears.’ Like its predecessor it was not a financial success and closed in June 1952.
Alexandra Loske, Curator at the Royal Pavilion
The Bears Discovery Day will take place on 3rd of August, 10am-1pm & 2-4pm. Curators and researchers will be talking about objects related to bears from Brighton Museum’s collections. Free with admission. For more information go to http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/brighton/whats-on-2/#!bears-discovery-day