A Trip to Polito’s Royal Menagerie

Can you remember the first time you laid eyes on an elephant? A giraffe? A monkey?

I’m sure most of us have enjoyed trips to the zoo, but it’s difficult to remember how it must have felt to see these strange animals for the first time. Today we are so accustomed to seeing all kinds of creatures from across the world, and we’re lucky that our curiosity about the animal kingdom is easily satisfied by pressing play on a series of Planet Earth and listening to the soothing tones of David Attenborough. But in the past, options were more limited. Rather than settling down on the sofa, you would have instead taken a trip to Polito’s Royal Menagerie – a collection of ‘wonderful burds and beasts from most parts of the world’ that travelled the country in the early 19th century.

Figure group, ‘Polito’s Royal Menagerie’, earthenware, English (Staffordshire), about 1830. C.128-2003. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Visiting the menagerie would have been an exciting affair, and thanks to this ceramic Staffordshire figure in the V&A’s collection we can get an impression of what it was like. The figure shows the front of the travelling menagerie, complete with spectacular banner and brass band, all designed to entice the crowds inside. Once in, you would have been confronted with a suite of unusual animals from foreign lands. An advert from 1805 in the Nottingham Journal describes Polito’s as comprising a ‘noble lion, royal tigers, kangaroos, panthers, a beaver, leopards, wolves, a possum, a wanderoo and upwards of fifty other quadrupeds’. Although these animals were not performing tricks (menageries were not the same as circuses), their magnificent presence was performance enough for the curious viewing public. It is for this reason that I chose the figure of Polito’s menagerie for the Performing Objects series, a programme of talks given as part of the V&A Performance Festival which celebrates performance in its many forms, and this year explored links between Britain and continental Europe.

Poster advertising The Royal Menagerie, Exeter Change, Strand, London, when owned by Edward Cross (previously owned by Stephen Polito), wood engraving & letterpress on paper, possibly by Thomas Bewick (1753 – 1828), printed by Tyler & Honeyman, London, c.1820. S.2531-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Polito, originally from Italy, took his animals up and down the country for all to see. This included a trip to Wolverhampton in 1808, and as this is not far from Staffordshire we think it might have been this visit which inspired the potters to convert the menagerie into clay. The figure represents a high point in quality of production, as not only is it unusually large but also incredibly elaborate. Relatively costly to produce, each person and architectural element would have been made separately in two-part moulds before being joined together by a ‘repairer’, then decorated and fired. Although a huge number of ornamental Staffordshire figures were made throughout the 19th century, intended to decorate the homes of ordinary people, there are relatively few menagerie groups still in existence. For this reason it is considered a highlight of the ceramics collection, and gives us a wonderful glimpse into the menagerie tradition.

People from all walks of life would eagerly visit the menagerie when it came to town, from servants and the working classes who wanted some interesting entertainment, to scientists and natural historians who went to observe and study the animals. A print in the V&A’s collection gives us a brilliantly amusing depiction of what it might have been like to visit Polito’s. Below you can see Bartholomew’s fair in London, with Miles Menagerie to the left and Polito’s Grand Collection to the right, amidst chaotic crowds of drunk and unruly visitors. If you look closely (perhaps easier to do by visiting this link), in the bottom left there is even a woman who has taken a turn for the worse on the swing… vomiting on an unfortunate man’s head. It was clearly a fun place to be, although sadly the fun didn’t last too long as Bartholomew’s Fair was eventually shut down for promoting public disorder and debauchery.

Hand-coloured etching showing Bartholomew Fair, Harry Beard Collection, by
Thomas Rowlandson (-1827) and John Nixon (1745-1818), Great Britain. S.32-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

The fate of menageries soon went a similar way, following a huge public scandal surrounding the messy death of Chunee the elephant (who you can see in the centre of the ceramic figure’s banner) along with growing concerns around the treatment of the animals and their living conditions. In 1828 the Zoological Society of London founded the first zoo in Regent’s Park, where the surviving animals from the menagerie went to live. The famous zoo is still there today, so why not leave the sofa and say hello to these wonderful birds and beasts, and imagine what it would have been like to see them for the first time through nineteenth-century eyes.


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