An 18th-century rhinoceros is the star of a new exhibition at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, UK, and of a lavishly illustrated catalogue with the intriguing title, Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art 1500-1860.
‘Jungfer Clara’ (‘Miss Clara’, so christened while visiting Würzburg, Germany, in 1748, although nobody seems to know why) was a young female rhinoceros shipped from Bengal to Rotterdam in 1741 by an enterprising Dutch sea captain, Douwe Mout van der Meer. He then took her on a tour of European cities. It took eight horses to draw her specially made wooden carriage from Brussels to Venice, Paris to Prague, Rome to Warsaw, and finally to London – where she died in 1758. She was fed on bread, beer, and cartloads of hay, and her thick leathery skin was kept moist with liberal applications of fish oil.
At each destination, kings, queens, courtiers, and commoners flocked to see her, and her fame generated a massive industry in souvenirs and imagery, from life-scale paintings and sculptures by major artists to cheap popular prints; there were also Clara-inspired clocks, pots, and medals, and even hairstyles modelled on her horn.
Now Miss Clara is starring again in an exhibition, at the Barber Institute in the form of a life-sized marble sculpture – attributed to Peter Anton von Verschaffelt (1710-1793), the court sculptor working at Mannheim for the art- and music-loving Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria – and two sculptures cast in bronze that were inspired by the marble version.
These depictions of Miss Clara are the starting point for an exhibition that considers the wider phenomenon of the ‘celebrity beast’, the significance of the capture and captivity of these animals (especially rhinos, elephants, and hippos), and their display as exotic wonders.
The Vatican menagerie
The catalogue features works of art depicting some of the other beasts that were famous ‘personalities’ in their day but are now largely forgotten. Hanno the Elephant (named after Hannibal) was born in Kocji (Cochin), India, in 1510, and shipped to King Manuel I in Lisbon, who then sent the elephant to Leo X as a diplomatic gift to mark his election to the papacy.
Leo X was inconsolable when the elephant died in 1518 and asked Raphael to paint a life-sized fresco portrait of Hanno on the wall of the Vatican’s gatehouse. The gatehouse and fresco were later destroyed, but Raphael’s preliminary sketch survives in Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings). Hanno’s remains were rediscovered in 1962 by workmen digging up the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard to modernise a heating and cooling system and were at first mistaken for the bones of a dinosaur.
Hanno also appears in Raphael’s fresco, executed in 1518-1519, on the second floor of the Papal Palace, in a scene from Genesis depicting the creation of the animals. Also portrayed are a unicorn and a rhinoceros. The latter was another intended gift to Leo X from Manuel I, who was keen to secure the pope’s blessing (equivalent to divine approval) for Portuguese colonial expansion. The rhino survived the journey from India to Lisbon, but was drowned when the ship conveying her to Rome was wrecked in a storm. Several sketches and prints survive, including a woodcut of 1515 by Albrecht Dürer, which was a bestseller in its day and now sells for sums in excess of US $1m. Visitors to Lisbon today can spot a somewhat eroded carving on the western face of the 16th-century Belém Tower.
Hansken and Dumbo
Then there was Hansken, the Sri Lankan female elephant, brought to the Netherlands in 1637, where Rembrandt saw her and made four sketches in chalk. She died in Florence, where her skeleton remains on display in the Natural History Museum (Museo Storia Naturale – La Specola). We can also consider Jumbo, whose name has entered the English language as a synonym for anything over-sized (from aeroplanes to pizzas) and through the 1941 Disney cartoon in which Jumbo Jr is nicknamed ‘Dumbo’ because he is perceived to be stupid (you wouldn’t get away with that today!), and who is ridiculed for his large ears; his dejection turns to triumph when he finds he can use them to fly.
Several books have been written about the real Jumbo, whose sale by the Zoological Society of London to the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1882 caused an outcry, with John Ruskin, himself a Fellow of the Zoological Society, stating that the sale was disgraceful and a violation of best zoological practice. Some 100,000 children petitioned Queen Victoria to forbid the sale. It nevertheless went ahead and Jumbo made a fortune for Phineas T Barnum, until the elephant was struck by a freight train while crossing a railway track in 1885.
It seems to have been the fate of so many celebrity pachyderms to suffer an untimely and violent death. An Indian elephant named Chunee arrived in London in 1811; after seeing him entertaining an audience at the Exeter Exchange menagerie on London’s Strand, Lord Byron recorded that ‘he took and gave me my money, took off my hat, opened a door and behaved so well that I wish he was my butler’. Chunee’s life came to an end in 1826 when he ‘ran amok’ (probably enraged by toothache) whilst being exercised along the Strand. Soldiers were summoned to shoot him; hit by 152 musket balls, he remained in agony until he was finally killed with a harpoon.
Missing elephants and a real caiman
As recently as 2011, archaeologists in Wales excavated the beer garden of the Talbot pub in Tregaron, mid Wales, in search of the remains of Jwmbi, an elephant that fell ill and died in the town in 1848, probably after drinking water contaminated with lead or arsenic from nearby mines. Jwmbi was one of three elephants that were part of Batty’s Travelling Menageries. The archaeologists failed in their quest to find the elephant’s grave, but Dr Jemma Bezant, leader of the excavation, admitted that the hotel once owned 100 acres, so the remains could be anywhere.
The death and burial of Jwmbi was reported in a local newspaper at the time, but there are plenty of other rumours of similar burials that lack supporting evidence. David Evans, Historic Environment Record Officer with South Gloucestershire Council, says that he is often asked, ‘Have you found the elephant yet?’ when working on excavations – not an example of Gloucestershire humour but a reference to the local legend that the hollow outside the churchyard gate at Holy Trinity, in the Bristol suburb of Kingswood, is the burial place of an elephant that died after browsing on the poisonous leaves of a yew tree. No documentary evidence has survived to support what is possibly an urban myth.
At Diss in Norfolk, one local resident claims to have witnessed the burial of an elephant in the 1940s on Fair Green (so-called because it was used as the site for visiting fairs and circuses for centuries). When archaeologists from the University of East Anglia surveyed the green with ground-penetrating radar they found subterranean patterns supporting this claim. They also discovered evidence of a cock-fighting pit and a possible militia camp.
And for decades, people in Pentre, Rhondda Cynon Taff, south Wales, talked about the crocodile buried underneath the floor of the local school. Lo and behold, when the wood-block floor of the school hall was lifted for renovation in August 2019, there it was – the skeleton of a caiman, said to have been buried at some time between the two World Wars, though nobody seems to know the story that led to this odd event.
One place where you will not find elephant graves is the section of Woodlawn Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois, known as Showmen’s Rest. The statues of five elephants surrounding this part of the cemetery have led to the belief that these and other circus animals are buried here along with the human victims of the Hammond circus train disaster of 22 June 1918. Between 56 and 61 employees of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus lost their lives in the crash and the subsequent conflagration. Three camels, a Great Dane, a horse, and an elephant named Maud were also killed, but they were buried close to the crash site. No animals were buried at Showmen’s Rest, but nearby residents still claim that they can hear the sounds of ghostly elephants trumpeting on still nights.