The Chinese use the lunar calendar for festive occasions including the New Year which falls somewhere between late January and early February. The cycle of twelve animal signs derives from Chinese folklore as a method for naming the years. The animals follow one another in an established order and are repeated every twelve years - rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Each animal has particular characteristics and people born in a certain year are believed to take on these characteristics.
People born in the Year of the Monkey are intelligent, witty and strong-willed. They are remarkably inventive, creative and able to solve most problems. Their curiosity means they have a great thirst for knowledge. They are usually the centre of attention at parties, their creative mind makes them excellent story-tellers and their smile will light up the room. At times Monkey people are unreasonable, self-centred and opportunitistic. They love challenges and their popularity means they often become leader, but they can be cunning and manipulative to win the race.
Monkey Years: 1908, 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028
The following objects show examples of monkeys from different parts of the V&A's collections. The monkey has different meanings to different cultures and religions throughout the world.
'Hanuman, the monkey God
'Hanuman, the monkey God, carrying Rama and Laksmana'
Late 19th century
Museum no. IM.2:95-1917
Hanuman is the Hindu monkey god. He is a great hero and is known as the god of courage, hope, knowledge and devotion. He is usually depicted as a strong monkey holding a mace (gada) which is a sign of bravery and has a picture of Lord Rama tattooed on his chest to show his devotion to Lord Rama. In this painting Hanuman is carrying Lord Rama and Laksmana on his shoulders. It is a scene taken from a story in the Ramayana.
Embroidered panel, worked by Mary Queen of Scots
Worked by Mary Queen of Scots
Museum no. T.33J-1955
This panel of linen canvas is embroidered in silks in cross stitch, bordered with fragments of gold tissue and mounted on a silk velvet ground. It has the monogram MR for Maria Regina. Mary Queen of Scots embroidered it with a number of others during her time of imprisonment in England. Needlework provided her with a practical occupation and it was also an outlet for her to express the frustation of her situation, her choice of subject matter including many mottoes and emblems representing courage in adversity. She also depicted various subjects from natural history and in this case has copied an illustration from the 1560 edition of Conrad Gesner's Icones Animalium. The dark silk with which the ape was embroidered has partially decayed, exposing the drawing out of the design on the canvas ground.
Two monkeys, papercut
Museum no. FE.117-1992
This Chinese papercut shows two monkeys. The papercut is an example of Chinese folk art. They are traditionally placed in the windows of homes during festivals. Many are made from red paper and the subject matter is chosen to celebrate the festival, as well as lucky or prosperous symbols or imagery for warding off evil spirits. The designs are often intricate and the forms are rarely realistic, but instead an artist's interpretation of a particular folk tale or religious story. The Chinese New Year is one of the festivals for which papercuts are created and the animal representing the new year is often included in the designs.
Musical automaton Hurdy Gurdy, France
Musical automaton Hurdy Gurdy
Museum no. MISC.33-1965
This is a wooden box with two monkey musicians. The handle at the back of the organ operates the monkeys who play eight different tunes. It is illustrated in a Silber and Fleming catalogue of 1876/77 and is an example of the sort of automaton which was possible to buy in exclusive shops and elegant department stores in the late 19th century. It is very much an adult's toy, probably made in France, which was renowned for its manufacture of luxurious and extravagant toys.
Monkey marionette, carved wood
Museum no. S.120-1987
This monkey puppet is called a marionette because it is operated from above, by strings attached to a control bar. It was carved by Gair Wilkinson who was inspired in 1914 by some toy Italian puppets to make some himself. He started his career as a professional puppeteer by touring England in a caravan with his brother Walter and performing with his carved puppets. Walter Wilkinson went on to concentrate on the revival of glove puppetry, while Gair continued with marionettes. By 1928 he had carved a remarkable set of marionettes, illustrated on the flier for his show, which are now in the Theatre Museum, including the monkey and Marino, Pagliacci and Pimpinella, and Harlequin and Columbine. Gair Wilkinson was the artist Arthur Wilkinson. After he married Lily Gair, they became known as the 'Gair Wilkinson Marionettes'. He later assumed the name Gair Wilkinson professionally.
Tile panel design, William de Morgan
Tile panel design
William de Morgan
Museum no. E.945-1917
This tile design depicts a monkey stretching from a tree to reach the reflection of the moon. This scene represents a famous Buddhist moral story. There are subtle differences in the interpretations of its meaning, but it is generally believed to represent a person (the monkey) looking for enlightenment (the moon), but he is looking in the wrong place: the unenlightened mind is deluded by mere appearances.
Doorcase, from the Great Drawing Room
From the Great Drawing Room, Norfolk House
Carved and painted pine
Giovanni Battista Borra (designer) and Jean Anthoine Cuenot (carver)
Museum no. W4-1960
Norfolk House was the London home of the Duke of Norfolk and was situated at 31 St. James Square, London. The building was pulled down in 1938, but the Music Room from it has been reconstructed in the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This doorcase, featuring monkeys, comes from the Great Drawing Room, the grandest of a suite of entertaining rooms at Norfolk House. The monkey design echoed monkeys shown in the French tapestries which decorated the walls.
Mechanical monkey, lithographed tinplate
Museum no. B.143-1996
Drumming animals are a popular subject for clockwork toys and many were produced in Japan and China between the 1950's and the 1970's. The drum of this toy features cartoon characters resembling Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse. However, these toys would not have been made under licence. When wound up the monkey moves from side to side and beats the drum. This toy was made in China probably for the local market rather than for export.
Netsuke, Miwa Koku
Museum no. A.936-1910
The netsuke is a toggle. Japanese men used netsuke to suspend various pouches and containers from their sashes by a silk cord. Netsuke had to be small and not too heavy, yet bulky enough to do the job. They needed to be compact with no sharp protruding edges, yet also strong and hardwearing. Above all they had to have the means of attaching the cord. Although netsuke were made in a variety of forms, the most widely appreciated is the katabori (shape carving). This is a three-dimensional carving, such as this example. This netsuke of a monkey accidentally combines the skills of Miwa and Kokusai. They were two leading netsukeshi (netsuke craftsmen), both from Edo. Although the first craftsman of the Miwa line was active around 1781, there were several later craftsmen who used the same name. Kokusai was a highly original and inventive carver who widely used stag antler for his work. This netsuke is signed 'Miwa' for the original work. It also carries a stag-antler plaque that reads 'repaired by Koku [Kokusai]'. Presumably Kokusai repaired a treasured netsuke by covering the damaged part with a plaque.
Museum no. 445-1904
The netsuke is a toggle. Japanese men used netsuke to suspend various pouches and containers from their sashes by a silk cord. Netsuke had to be small and not too heavy, yet bulky enough to do the job. They needed to be compact with no sharp protruding edges, yet also strong and hardwearing. Above all they had to have the means of attaching the cord. Although netsuke were made in a variety of forms, the most widely appreciated is the katabori (shape carving). This is a three-dimensional carving, such as this example. From 1750 onwards, customers increasingly demanded imaginative and innovative netsuke. This example shows a monkey climbing a bamboo shoot. The craftsman has skilfully carved the monkey from a solid piece of stag antler so that it can actually move up and down. This netsuke is signed Masayuki. He was a netsukeshi (netsuke craftsman) of the Asakusa line and was active from about 1850 to the late 1800s. Asakusa was a district of Tokyo (formerly Edo) that produced a number of craftsmen who worked in a distinctive style. They were all strongly influenced by Kokusai, who was the greatest master of this style. Asakusa netsuke are usually made from stag antler, which was a relatively inexpensive material. The designs are very original and humorous and are carved in a distinctive and highly original style.
Netsuke, Japan (possibly) China (possibly)
Japan (possibly) China (possibly)
Museum no. A.926-1910
The netsuke is a toggle. Japanese men used netsuke to suspend various pouches and containers from their sashes by a silk cord. Netsuke were made in a variety of forms, the most widely appreciated being the katabori (shape carving), a three-dimensional carving, such as this one in the form of a double gourd with a monkey. From the mid 18th century onwards, customers increasingly demanded imaginative and innovative netsuke. The top of this gourd lifts off to reveal a chain, clinging to which are two small monkeys, which can be pulled out and pushed back inside. The gourd, interlinking chain and monkeys are all carved from a solid piece of ivory. Such work demanded enormous skill and was typical of 19th and 20th century Chinese workmanship. Netsuke had to be small and not too heavy, yet bulky enough to do the job. They needed to be compact with no sharp protruding edges, yet also strong and hard-wearing. Above all, they had to have the means for attaching a cord. Although this carving complies with all these criteria, it was probably not intended as a functioning netsuke and is likely to have been made in China, where people did not use netsuke. It is a typical example of the unashamed quest of late 19th-century netsuke for both novelty and technical excellence, often at the expense of practicality.
Museum no. W.222-1922
The inro is a container made up of tiers. Japanese men used them because the traditional Japanese garment, the kimono, had no pockets. From the late 1500s onwards, Japanese men wore the inro suspended from their sash by a silk cord and a netsuke (toggle). They originally used it to hold their seal and ink or a supply of medicines. However, it rapidly became a costly fashion accessory of little or no practical use. Most inro are rectangular with gently curving sides. Makers used a great variety of decorative styles and layout. On this example, the maker has spread the decoration over the entire body. As a result, the inro often cuts the decoration at unusual or unexpected places. This design shows 115 monkeys, many of which are dressed like human beings and engaged in human activities. It is a remarkable achievement given the small scale of the decoration and the use of the makie (sprinkled picture) technique. This involves sprinkling gold, red and brown powders on to a prepared lacquer surface to create the design.