As an art student, while researching the history of the London Zoo, I discovered the existence of a Royal menagerie at The Tower of London which formed the nucleus of the Zoo’s original animal collection in the 1830s. Later at the Royal College of Art, working on my thesis about the changing roles animals played in the visual arts, I came across some of the early engravings and prints of the Tower’s menagerie animals in the Royal Armouries collection. I am an animal artist and rely on zoos for direct observation and close study of my subjects and have long been interested in our complex, changing relationship with wildlife and animals kept in captivity. So, when learning of the proposed ‘Royal Beasts’ exhibition and sculpture commission at the Tower through my art dealer Patrick Davies, we were very keen to submit a proposal.
To visually communicate the story of the Royal menagerie, that existed for hundreds of years at The Tower, to the vast number of visitors, was a challenging concept for the Historic Royal Palaces Interpretation team. Short of confining live animals for display, how else could the atmosphere and bizarre juxtaposition of wild animals be created in the Tower’s confined surroundings. The team also wanted to avoid cheapening such an important historical story by using animal replicas, more suited to a theme park: the physical presence and sculptural material would be the key. Fortunately, my principal medium of wire matched perfectly. The linear qualities of wire paralleled the expressive qualities of the beautiful animal drawings and engravings in the Royal Armouries collection, some of which would form part of the exhibition. The wire sculptures look very different in changing light and at different distances can create an ephemeral, ethereal quality to the image. The monotoned, shadowy forms help add to the sense of these ‘ghost creatures’ from the past. In addition, the fencing mesh used, a material often used in confining animals, helps to reflect the idea of captivity.
Being awarded the sculpture commission for the ‘Royal Beasts’ exhibition was an honour and I felt fortunate to be part of such an interesting and exciting project in the unique heritage surroundings of this major historical site. I worked closely with the interpretation team and historical curators in choosing the most relevant animals to portray. This involved the team’s extensive research, looking at old receipt books and payroll documents, evidence of purchases for the animal inmates, the keepers’ wages, old press articles and stories of animal escapees and attacks on the public.
The selected animals chosen to represent the menagerie were lions, an elephant, baboons and a polar bear. These and their life at the Tower were well documented and evident in historically interesting stories. Lions had been among the first animals given to the English King during the 12th century and were continually kept at the Tower until the collection was finally moved to create the Zoological gardens in the 1830’s. The three lions I depicted are symbolic of the heraldry of England and form the Royal Coat of Arms. The original lions kept at the Tower were Barbary lions, sadly hunted to extinction, a large North African subspecies that have larger, darker manes than their sub-Saharan cousins. The lion sculptures are sited on the remains of the old lion tower next to the entrance causeway at the moat, purposely placed to have a powerful and intimidating impact for Tower visitors.
The original Polar bear was a gift from the King of Norway to Henry III in 1251 making the first appearance of this Artic animal in England. The African elephant was also a gift to Henry III by the King of France and again this was the first ever seen in England and caused much excitement on its journey from Dover to the Tower. The King had a special wooden house made for the elephant but it sadly died two years later and, given how little was then known of its natural diet had been given red wine to drink. Monkeys were always a popular menagerie attraction and in the 1750’s visitors to the Tower experienced ‘The School of Monkeys’ who were allowed to roam free in and around the visitors. Records exist of a particularly violent baboon who used to smoke a pipe and hurl objects and stones at the visitors; even on its journey to the Tower, this animal reportedly killed a boy by throwing a cannonball at him. I wanted to echo this anarchic sense of unruly energy by having the baboons interacting with each other as a wild troop, sitting on the walls and up one of the Tower’s turrets. The placing of the selected animals within the Tower had to be historically relevant as well. The Tower is a Listed Monument, a World Heritage Site and English Heritage had to follow strict criteria and regulations in placing and fixing the sculptures. The three wire Lions were placed on top of the old Lion Tower to have an obvious location connection, while the Polar Bear is sited where the river embankment would have been in the 13th century and feasibly where the bear was allowed to fish in the Thames attached to a long chain. The wooden elephant house, although no longer in existence, was considered most likely to have been in the Inner Ward area near the White Tower, so we chose the archway opposite to help create a sense of claustrophobic confinement. The fixings to make these life size, steel framed, heavily wired sculptures safe and secure and not damage the ancient listed surfaces proved a particular challenge. Thankfully with the expertise of the art installer James Shearer’s ingenious technical, design solutions made the whole installation possible.
Working with a small team of assistants, the wire menagerie of thirteen sculptures took fifteen months to complete. I wanted the pieces to portray the powerful, physical presence of the ‘Royal Beasts’ in their incongruous surroundings at The Tower. These were very much wild animals, viewed as aliens and curiosities, unseen by the population before and by guardians with little or no understanding of animal welfare which, as a result, sadly, many of these creatures had short, cruel lives. Today’s public relate to the ‘Royal Beasts’ and their history from a more empathetic and knowledgeable viewpoint in stark contrast to the visitors of the menagerie centuries before. I trust my sculptures represent something of the ‘live animals’ and help resonate the ‘beasts’ predicament and their emotive being and powerful physicality within the confines of the fortress. A haunting glimpse of the former animal inmates, an uneasy reality adding to the richness of the past and another macabre, intriguing story in the fascinating history of the Tower of London.