Curator's Choice: Dr Alexandra Loske on George IV and his cherished giraffe at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion

By Sophie Beckwith | 27 January 2016

Dr Alexandra Loske, of the Royal Pavilion and Museums in Brighton, on the arrival of the first giraffe in Britain and more intriguing animals from the Exotic Creatures exhibition

Picture of George IV stroking his giraffe
Robert Seymour 'Shortshanks' and G. Creed, The Great Joss and his Playthings. Hand-coloured etching (c.1829) © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove
“I discovered the giraffe when we acquired Lord Baker’s collection of regency caricatures, political cartoons from mostly the early 1800s. I spotted prints where a giraffe featured and I thought, ‘that’s curious – why is there a giraffe?’

In a very famous one, George IV is depicted as a fat mandarin sitting on a teapot and playing with his toys - the Royal Pavilion, various building projects and other strange things - including a giraffe which he is stroking. I looked into it and discovered that he really did have a giraffe, given to him by the Pasha of Egypt in 1827 as a diplomatic gift.

A photo of a painting of giraffes and arabs
George Scharf, Giraffes in the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park. Lithograph (1836). Private collection© James Pike Photography Ltd / Private collection
The pasha of Egypt gave three giraffes as gifts; one to the Pope, one to the King of France and one to King George IV.

They were captured as babies in what is now Sudan. The mother was killed and the poor little giraffes were strapped on to the back of camels, carried through the desert and probably taken all the way to Khartoum.

A photo of a painting of George IV riding a camel
William Heath (1794 - 1840), The Camelopard, or a New Hobby. Hand-coloured etching, London (1827)© The Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove
They were transported between three and four thousand miles through the desert and through Egypt. A lot didn’t survive. At some point they were put on boats with holes cut in to the deck and their heads sticking out.

Giraffe hunting, which was very popular, was a very, very cruel thing. Giraffes were considered so incredibly exotic because no giraffe had been seen in Europe since the Medici giraffe was given by a leader of Egypt to Lorenzo de'Medici in the 15th century.

A photo of a colourful painting of a giraffe and three people
Jacques-Laurent Agasse, The Nubian Giraffe. Oil on canvas (1827)© Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015
That giraffe made it to Florence and was paraded there like a sort of celebrity. It appears in frescos in Florence.

More than 300 years passed with no giraffes. People weren’t quite sure whether they actually existed so there were very curious illustrations. People who had been to Africa said there was this creature with an incredibly long neck and this is what it looks like, but those illustrations were not very reliable.

A painting of a giraffe
The giraffe from 'Quadrupeds', an illustration from a late 18th century encyclopaedia. Private collection© James Pike Photography Ltd / Private collection
In the later 18th century, the great age of scientific curiosity, they tried to examine giraffe skins and skeletons that came into Europe. Even a dead giraffe was a valuable giraffe. But the real thing didn’t come to Europe until the 1820s because giraffes struggle; when they are captured they struggle until they break their neck or their limbs.
George’s giraffe travelled by ship from Alexandria to Malta and then boarded the Penelope Malta Trader in May 1827 for the three-month trip to England. It spent some time in the London docks before being moved to Windsor.

Watercolour painting showing a woman with a large hairstyle
Alfred Edward Chalon, Giraffe Fashion - La Giraffe dediee sans permission á Mademoiselle Chalon. After watercolours (1828)© Courtesy of The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
Zoos as we know them now did not exist yet in Britain and perhaps the giraffe triggered their establishment as visitor attractions. George was almost at the end of his life, in his mid-60s, overweight, suffering from gout. 1827 is the last time he visits the Royal Pavilion.

He goes to Windsor Castle and spends most of his time in his little cottage in Windsor Great Park. He becomes almost a recluse. He doesn’t want to be on public view any more. He was enormous by then, he’s ailing, he’s quite happy to spend time hanging out with a giraffe.

Photo of a ceramic tiger
One of the ceramics on display in Exotic Creatures© James Pike Photography Ltd
He has a menagerie at Windsor, very gentle, all the sort of animals you can stroke - manageable creatures - and then comes the giraffe, his new toy. In a strange way it resembles him: it’s exotic, it’s a curious creature, and it’s damaged. They die within ten months of each other.

The skeleton appears in more regency caricatures where you see George’s Mistress Lady Conyngham being kicked out of Windsor Castle with her daughter and looting the palace; taking whatever they can grab, cases full of precious things. The daughter has on her back the skeleton of the giraffe because it was considered very valuable.

A photo of a painting featuring a deceased giraffe and people weeping around it.
Taxidermist John Gould stuffed George’s giraffe when it died. Le Mort. Hand-coloured etching (1829)© The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
After its death George’s giraffe was stuffed by the taxidermist John Gould. It is uncertain what happened to it.

This has been a pleasurable distraction, all feeding into the subject of exoticism at the time. It’s helped me to understand the life and times of George, the overlapping of science and the arts and the association of this exotic creature with the Pavilion.

A photo of an etching of a hippopotamus
L'Hippopotame, from Comte de Buffon's Histoire Naturelle, Etching (1764)© Courtesy of The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove / Collection Alexandra Loske
We see later in zoo architecture the orientalism and exoticism applied to giraffe houses. The giraffe house at Berlin Zoo built in the very early 20th century looks a bit like Brighton Pavilion - Moorish in style.

I’ve got a very complex relationship with George but I probably would have gone for a drink with him. I think he had a fantastically creative mind and produced very beautiful, wacky, unusual things; he really is a breath of fresh air.

Picture of a pavilion and gardens
Thomas Allom (1804-1872) after Matthew Wyatt (1777-1862), Royal Zoological Gardens, Brighton. Aquatint (1840)© James Pike Photography Ltd / The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton
You cannot look at him in any other context than the context of his time, so it would be much too simple to say he used taxpayers’ money to build The Royal Pavilion.
We have this extraordinary building which is like no other building in the world and he left it to us. I’m grateful to him for having given us this and the fascinating story of his giraffe.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Photo of exhibits on the wall of a museum
© James Pike Photography Ltd
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