The Royal Pavilion, Brighton will explore how animals considered exotic by the Georgians and early Victorians were depicted, kept and presented in a new Exhibition. Exotic Creatures will look at animals owned by the Royal Family and in menageries and early zoos, as well as the ‘political beasts’ of the period (c.1740-1850). A painting of liger cubs (a cross between a tiger and a lion) born at Windsor in 1824, and presented to Royal Pavilion creator George IV shortly after, will be displayed to the public for the first time.
Another rarely-seen painting will tell the story of the UK’s first living giraffe, given to George IV as a diplomatic gift by the Pasha of Egypt in 1826. Other works on show will include satirical prints, original menagerie bills, sculptural and ceramic pieces and paintings and archival material. The exhibition will take a hands-on, playful approach suitable for all the family, and a children’s Royal Pavilion Creature Trail will be available to buy at the admission desk.
The exhibition will be organised around four main themes:
Royal menageries: George IV, himself considered exotic and unpredictable by many, kept a significant collection of exotic animals in his private menagerie at Windsor Great Park – continuing a tradition dating back to the keeping of lions at the Tower of London Menagerie in the early 13th century. The exhibition will tell the stories of individual exotic animals and explain the transition to public menageries, the establishment of the Zoological Society of London in 1826, and the opening of its Gardens – later known as London Zoo – in 1828.
Public and travelling menageries and early zoos: Many of the exhibits will have a strong connection with Brighton, whose residents enjoyed regular visits from travelling menageries and animal performances in the Royal Pavilion grounds. A permanent zoological gardens was proposed on the site now occupied by Park Crescent, where lions still top the gateposts of the southern garden wall.
The late Georgian period saw a change in attitudes to how and why exotic animals where kept, and in the late 1820s the Zoological Society of London, devoted to scientific research, was founded. This led to the establishment of what is now London Zoo.
Royal beasts: George’s mother Queen Charlotte kept a zebra in the 1760s and ordered a rhino for her children’s amusement, while George IV gave ostriches as presents to mistresses and kept kangaroos at Windsor Great Park. He also received the first living giraffe on British soil as a diplomatic gift.
The young female arrived in August 1827 after a long and strenuous journey from Africa, by which time neither she nor George were in a good state of health. Cartoonists mercilessly poked fun at both but the exhibition’s portrait by Swiss artist Jacques-Laurent Agasse is more sympathetic, depicting the giraffe in great detail with her keepers in Windsor Great Park. Although two Egyptian cows were drafted in as wet nurses she struggled in the UK, and died less than two years later (more info available on request).
Political beasts: Animals were a popular device for mocking politicians and royals in Georgian satire and caricatures, as depicted in Brighton Museum and the Royal Pavilion’s extensive collections (many of which are hand-coloured).
The exhibition will demonstrate how the arrival of exotic animals influenced fashion and the decorative arts in Britain, with giraffe-patterned wallpaper, teapots and fabrics becoming hugely popular in the late 1820s. It will also address the challenges of creating anatomically correct images of non-native animals in the Georgian era, and the period’s simultaneous passions for scientific research and the use (and abuse) of animals in entertainment.
As well as caricatures and striking Staffordshire figures from Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s own collection, curator Alexandra Loske has sourced significant loans from the Victoria & AlbertMuseum, the British Museum, Royal Collection Trust and private collections. She said:
“We’re thrilled to have secured the loan of one of the most popular and beautiful animal paintings in British art, a portrait of George IV’s giraffe – commissioned by the king himself and still in the Royal Collection. Another highlight will be the V&A’s exquisite bronze statue of a rhino named Clara, which toured Europe in the 1740s and 1750s – of which only four survive.
“We’re also very proud to be displaying a painting of liger cubs, attributed to Richard Barrett Davis. The cubs were born in Windsor in 1824 and presented to George IV, and were painted by leading animal painters including Agasse. The painting in our exhibition was recently bought by a local collector and supporter of the Royal Pavilion Foundation, and will be displayed to the public for the very first time.”
Exotic Creatures: Prince Regent’s Gallery, Royal Pavilion, Brighton, UK14 November 2015 to 28 February 2016