George and his giraffe


The 18th century was a period of scientific curiosity and investigations. One of the most prized curiosities was the giraffe, a live specimen of which had only been seen once in Europe. During the 15th century, one of the Egyptian rulers had sent a live one to Lorenzo di Medici, who had it paraded around Florence. It makes an appearance in several of the city’s frescoes. After that, even a dead example was regarded as a generous gift. Some people believed that the giraffe was the result of crossbreeding between a camel and leopard, based on its Roman name, the cameleopard.

In England, there had been a royal menagerie at the Tower of London since the Middle Ages. As early as 1252, a polar bear was kept there, a gift to King Henry III from the king of Norway. There were also leopards and lions. Lions have been royal emblems since the Middle Ages, although as displayed on the royal arms they are technically leopards. At the Tower of London, the building named Lion Tower gives us a clue about what was kept there.

During the reign of King George III there was a private royal menagerie at the Sandpit Gate in Windsor Great Park. Here could be found Clara the lion, Chunee the elephant and Queen Charlotte’s bad-tempered zebra, usually known as the Queen’s Ass. This had arrived in 1762 as a belated wedding present from a Royal Navy officer, Sir Thomas Adams. It was originally kept at the queen’s private London residence, Buckingham House. People longed to see this rarity. One visitor wrote, ‘The Queen’s she-ass…. had all her hours employed from morning to night in satisfying the curiosity of the public.’ The great animal painter George Stubbs immortalised it in 1763 and two Royal Navy ships came to be called HMS Zebra. Such was the zebra’s popularity that the Royal Guards tried to make some extra money by charging visitors to see it. It was somewhat strangely called a ‘charming beast.’

I say strangely because its behaviour was far from charming. The hope was that zebras could be tamed and trained to pull carriages. Generally, they can’t be ridden because, unlike horses, their backs aren’t strong enough. The queen’s was not to be tamed. It was known for biting and not letting go, kicking (in the wild they can kick a lion to death,) and its generally ‘ungovernable behaviour.’ A second zebra was kept at the Tower of London menagerie. This one bit its keeper and flung him to the ground. Perhaps the fact that their diet contained tobacco didn’t help. The idea of zebras becoming useful, like horses, was given up. They came to be known as ‘wild and vicious.’

Charlotte’s son, King George IV, was also fond of exotic animals. In 1827 the viceroy of Egypt sent three giraffe calves as gifts to George, the king of France and the emperor of Austria. Transport was always going to be a problem, for the poor creatures are fragile and not easy to transport. Indeed, previous attempts to export giraffes had sadly ended in their death. The viceregal gifts had been captured in the Nubian Desert during 1826, strapped onto the backs of camels and thus carted off to Khartoum. From there they were taken down the Nile to the port of Alexandria.

The giraffe destined for King George was small and sickly. She was sent first to Malta, in the care of two attendants and with its own two cows, to keep it supplied with fresh milk. Here she spent the winter before being hoisted about the Penelope Malta for her voyage to England. We are told that a hole was cut through the deck of the ship, to accommodate her long neck. Several weeks later, having survived the awful seas of the Bay of Biscay, the Penelope Malta arrived at Duchy of Lancaster Wharf by London Bridge. Here she spent a short time in a warehouse, whilst a crate was constructed for her journey to Windsor, where the king was waiting eagerly to meet her.

By 1827 King George IV was ill, obese, depressed and a recluse, spending most of his time at the Royal Lodge in Windsor Park. His great enjoyment was to go out to the menagerie of ‘gentle animals’ at the Sandpit Gate, in his pony chaise, accompanied by his equally fulsome mistress, the Marchioness Conyngham. He was thrilled when the giraffe arrived and was ten and a half feet tall. It became his new obsession. There is a famous caricature showing him and Lady Conyngham riding the giraffe together. This would have been impossible under normal circumstances, but was doubly so, because the poor creature’s legs had been injured during the rather rough voyage. There is another cartoon, showing the king, surrounded by the symbols of his obsessions. Prominent amongst them, and being fondled by His Majesty, was a model of a giraffe. In addition to visiting the menagerie, King George loved to go fishing on the lake at Virginia Water, or sit on the bank, drinking cherry brandy, a large pet cockatoo on his shoulder.

Giraffe mania swept fashionable society. Dresses were produced in the colours and markings of giraffes. Hair would be dressed high, in a style known as ‘a la giraffe.’ Porcelain candlesticks, modelled as giraffes, were eagerly sought after (they still are).

George’s giraffe sadly didn’t do well in the chilly, British climate and died in October 1829. King George was distraught at her loss, dying himself in June 1830. The taxidermist John Gould dissected and stuffed the giraffe with the new king, William IV, carrying out his brother’s intention of presenting the remains to the people as a gift – presumably of the educational sort. Thus, in 1830, the stuffed and mounted remains were presented to the museum of the Zoological Society of London. The museum closed in 1855, with the giraffe being purchased by a pathologist named Mr Crisp. Since then, it has never been seen again, and it is quite likely that it has been destroyed, possibly by bombing during the last war

Image Credits: Stefan Krause

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