The true story of George IV’s giraffe

At the Society’s annual dinner in February, trustee and art historian Alexandra Loske gave a talk about England’s first living giraffe. For those of you who missed it, here’s a brief reprise.

On the first floor of the Royal Pavilion, in the corridor outside the tearooms, is a selection of satirical Georgian prints. One of them, the 1829 The Great Joss and his Playthings, pokes fun at ageing King George IV’s interest in anything exotic and expensive. Look closely and you can see him stroking what looks like a toy giraffe – the first living giraffe to have reached England’s shores.

The giraffe was a diplomatic gift from Mohammed Ali, the viceroy of Egypt, in 1827. He had already given the British another gift that had proved difficult to move from one place to another – the obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle, now on Victoria Embankment in London. He gave a second giraffe to Charles X of France, then a third to Franz II, Emperor of Austria. The viceroy was about to make himself very unpopular with European leaders by joining the Ottoman war against Greece, which was the probable reason for these impressive gifts.
Although exotic animals and birds had been around in European menageries since the Middle Ages – there was, for example, a polar bear in the menagerie in the Tower of London in 1252 – giraffes proved to be the most elusive. Impossible to catch or tame as adults and of such fragile build that the transport of a young giraffe generally ended in its death, this strangely shaped and curiously beautiful creature captured the imagination of pre-Darwinian society. Naturalists as well as artists had tried to classify, describe and paint the giraffe but most had to rely on second-hand information or use dead animals, hides and incomplete skeletons as sources. Some still believed that the giraffe was a cross between a camel and a leopard, based on the name the Romans had given it, cameleopard.

The French and English giraffes were captured as babies in around 1826 in the Nubian Desert. They were probably strapped onto the backs of camels and taken to Khartoum, then shipped on feluccas down the Nile to Alexandria. In Alexandria, France and England allegedly drew lots as to who would get which giraffe, with the taller one going to France.

The giraffe bound for England was younger, smaller, and had probably suffered greatly on her journey, as it was later noted by vets who carried out a post mortem that she had arrived in England with deformed limbs. She was sent by ship to Malta, with two Egyptian milk cows, two Egyptian keepers, several other African mammals and a translator for company, and spent the winter there.

In May 1827, she boarded the Penelope Malta Trader, with a hole cut into the deck of the ship to accommodate her. She arrived at London’s Duchy of Lancaster Wharf, Waterloo Bridge, on 11 August 1827 and put up briefly in a warehouse, before being moved in a large container to Windsor, where George had been eagerly awaiting his new toy.

By then, George had become a recluse, spending most of his time at the Royal Lodge and Virginia Water Fishing Temple in Windsor Great Park. His health declining, he devoted himself to his mistress Lady Conyngham and was often seen riding in his pony-chaise to his menagerie of “gentle animals” at Sandpit Gate. To this menagerie he added the giraffe. Alas, neither the poor giraffe nor George lasted very long. The giraffe suffered badly from the injuries sustained on the long journey from deepest Africa to Windsor, was perhaps given an inappropriate diet, and died in the autumn of 1829.

Many satirical prints tell the story of her demise, clearly associating her with the much ridiculed King. One print shows Lady Conyngham and George hoisting the giraffe, now unable to stand unaided, up to a specially built frame. With her feet bandaged she references another well-known caricature of George being hoisted on to a horse, his gout-ridden feet also bandaged.
There are a number of serious depictions of the English giraffe, mostly commissioned by George. What remains apart from the paintings, anatomical drawings and satirical images is the most peculiar array of decorative items produced during the height of giraffe-mania, including candlesticks, printed fabrics and ceramics inspired by this most mesmerising of animals. In 1827 and 1828, fashionable magazines and publications on interior design promoted a giraffe-colour or giraffe pattern, as can be seen in a fashion plate from Ackermann’s Repository of Arts (above). Hair was worn a la giraffe, piled up high. In France, you could even buy block printed wallpaper with images of the giraffe.
After her death, George’s giraffe was stuffed by a talented young taxidermist, John Gould. It is uncertain what happened to the stuffed giraffe and her skeleton, but they were most likely used for research. The stuffed French giraffe can still be admired in the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in La Rochelle. The next lot of giraffes arrived in Britain in 1836 and were kept at the recently opened gardens of the Zoological Society at Regent’s Park (now London Zoo), in a building designed by Decimus Burton, who also designed the first manifestation of Adelaide Crescent in Hove. Burton’s giraffe house survives at London zoo and is still inhabited by giraffes.

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