Exhibition: Royal Beasts, Tower of London, opening May 28 2011
© Historic Royal Palaces
A polar bear, elephant, baboons, monkeys and lions are certainly not what people expect to see unless they are at a zoo, yet amazingly for a staggering 600 years they were a common sight at the Tower of London.
What's more, it is said that at one point a polar bear fished in the Thames daily, alongside other wild animals who roamed the grounds in one of the more bizarre traditions of the royal household.
The tradition of collecting exotic animals began in medieval times, when Kings and Queens exchanged strange beasts as regal gifts.
The Royal Menagerie at the tower began with King Henry III’s white bear, which caused quite a stir amongst Londoners in 1251. Records show that the creature, a gift from the King of Norway, had a chain ordered for its leg so it could fish in the river.
Responding to this tradition, Artist Kendra Haste has recreated some of the most popular animals as installation pieces for an exhibition called Royal Beast.
Haste’s life size polar bear gives visitors an idea what it would have been like hundreds of years ago. Seeing the bear, poised and chained brings an overwhelming sense of disbelief that an Arctic animal made it to London during the 1300s.
Various animals have been placed around the Tower strategically, mimicing how they would have been situated originally - most notable are the leopards and lions.
© Historic Royal Palaces
"I hope to convey through the sculpture the presence and power of these animals held in the unnatural confines of the tower,” says Haste. “It has been fascinating to research the long history of the Menagerie. Depicting some of the past wild inmates at the Tower has been a huge privilege and challenge."
The lions are very symbolic. Part of the ongoing heraldic traidtion of the Royals, King John was said to be intensely proud that he could breed them. He even named one of the buildings Lion Tower and the lion remains a part of England’s identity and a national emblem.
In the corner of the Tower’s walls, outside the Jewel House, sit three mischievous baboons. There was a School of Monkeys in The Monkey Room until it closed in 1810.
These lifelike outdoor sculptures lead visitors to the Brick Tower where there is an interactive exhibition about the history of the menagerie.
Of course there was no real knowledge as to how dangerous these creatures really were and there were many attacks on humans. In 1696 a lady living with the keeper of the lions, Mary Jenkinson, stroked the largest one and died after losing her arm whilst being mauled.
By the early 1820s and after several attacks on visitors, the Duke of Wellington finally ordered the Menagerie to be closed. The remaining animals were taken to Regent’s Park as the founding collection of London Zoo, whilst others joined travelling circuses. Some even travelled as far as America.
People might be surprised to learn about the existence of the Royal Menagerie and may even find it difficult imagining kangaroos and monkeys wandering the grounds of a royal palace.
Haste’s pieces help visitors to visualise such a bizarre sight and the exhibition gives them the opportunity to learn how exotic animals were once an every day occurence at the Tower of London.