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Miss Clara, a Celebrity Beast, on show at the Barber Institute of Fine Art, Birmingham

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent

Attributed to Peter Anton Verschaffelt (1710 –93) A Rhinoceros, Called Miss Clara (1738-1758) German or Flemish, Bronze, model and cast c.1750 –60 245 x 467 x 150 mm © The Barber Instituteof Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

An Indian rhinoceros called ‘Miss Clara’, or more accurately an 18th century bronze model of a rhino that has been a highlight of the Barber Institute of Fine Art’s collection for years, is now the star of a fascinating exhibition at Birmingham University.

The latest in the Barber’s acclaimed object in-focus series of exhibitions, Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500-1860 devotes itself to the rhino and other well-known pachyderms and the art that their celebrity spawned over those centuries.

‘Miss Clara’ was the first live rhino to be seen in mainland Europe since 1579. The young female rhinoceros was brought from Bengal to Rotterdam in 1741 by an enterprising retired Dutch East India Company sea captain called Douwe Mout van der Meer – and thus began for Clara an almost two decade-long life of practically ceaseless touring and celebrity.

To transport and promote the young rhino ‘attraction’ was no mean feat, but for van der Meer it was lucrative. It took eight horses to pull Clara and her waggon, and cartloads of hay and bread and water (augmented by the odd draught of beer!) to feed her, and also to keep her skin moist with fish oil, but all the paraphernalia and effort paid off handsomely for van der Meer as Clara’s fame grew and people flocked to see her, willing to part with their money to marvel at the outlandish beast. Her thick leathery skin, so like armour! Her single horn, so like a unicorn’s! The public lapped it up, artists also, capturing her image for posterity in various forms, from marble to bronze, from pencil to watercolour and oil.

Tame as a lamb’, she was feted in many of the continent’s major cities, Brussels, Berlin, Vienna, Venice, Paris and Rome among them. A map at the start of the exhibition shows a tangled web of dotted lines charting the unfortunate creature’s travels until finally on a visit to London, she died in 1758.

Joining the Barber’s fine sculpture in the exhibition are three other versions: a bronze rhino (minus tail) loaned from the Victoria & Albert Museum; a unique marble version of equal size from the Bowes Museum; and an astonishingly large marble version from the Rothschild Family Trust weighing over half a tonne that has never before been displayed publicly. This array of black and white virtually lookalike rhinos is quite a spectacle in the exhibition.

And spectacle was what it was about. At each destination, Clara was viewed by kings, queens, courtiers and commoners. Anyone, in fact, who could afford to gladly paid a fee to see her (about half a day’s wage for a skilled craftsman). At one point she spent time in Louis XV’s royal menagerie, and also had a vessel in the French Royal Navy named after her. Clara was simultaneously exploited and adored as a celebrity; a contradiction we tend to think of as contemporary.

Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain (case maker), Julien Jolie (clockmaker), Table or Mantel Clock, on Bronze Base in the form of a Rhinoceros, c.1770, enamel, gilt brass, and bronze, 630 x 422 x 184mm. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (No. M.2-1957). © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

They pack a lot into the single-room display. Along with the rhino sculptures – including an 18th century cast and gilt bronze rhinoceros clock - there are ceramics, coins, paintings, prints and drawings by major artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Hollar, Longhi and Oudry recording the large exotic pachyderms that enthralled European audiences. And in the excellent catalogue, as well as the display texts, exhibition curator Robert Wenley considers the wider picture: the emergence of menageries and zoos, and the significance of the capture and captivity of these magnificent beasts within the context of colonialism and empire.

Among other celebrity beasts sharing the spotlight with Clara are the elephants Hanno, Hansken, Jumbo and tragic Chunee, an Indian elephant brought to Regency London in 1811, trained to perform tricks. Lord Byron saw Chunee perform in Exeter and wrote: "The elephant took and gave me my money again — took off my hat — opened a door — trunked a whip — and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler." Unfortunately, Chunee’s sad life came to an even sadder end in a hail of bullets in 1826, after running amok along The Strand whilst being exercised and accidentally killing one of his keepers. Most likely Chunee was coming into must or musth (a natural periodic phenomenon of mature male elephants) and, testosterone-fuelled, his behaviour became restless and more aggressive. The illustrator and satiristGeorge Cruikshank depicts the moment in his 1826 etching, Destruction of the Furious Elephant at Exeter ’Change.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Elephant, 1629, etching, 242 x 276mm. The British Museum, London (No. 1870, 0625.55). © The Trustees of the British Museum

In the 1850s, Obaysch was the first hippopotamus to be seen in Europe since Roman times. He caused a sensation on coming to ZSL London Zoo. A charming watercolour of Obaysch painted by Joseph Wolf around 1850/51 shows the hippo resting on his side, half-asleep, and perhaps it’s because of the subtle colouring or perhaps because of that one drowsy half open eye, but this was an image that stayed with me afterwards.

Nearby, a small sculpture made me smile; it was said to have been made from ‘Nile mud’; well, who knows? Either way, the smiling Obaysch seemed to be enjoying the joke. Likewise a little Staffordshire mantelpiece ornament of Polito’s menagerie caught attention, for different reasons.

Polito’s Royal Menagerie, a travelling collection of animals that included a tiger, a lion, camel, kangaroos – and a ‘hippopotamus’ that actually was a tapir - had its winter quarters on the second floor above a shopping arcade in the Strand. It cost two shillings to go in – two and sixpence at feeding time – and was so famous in London that for a while it outshone the royal menagerie at the Tower. Lord Byron, visiting in 1813, wrote in his diary that “the ‘Ursine sloth’ hath the very voice and manner of my valet”. It was also Chunee’s home, and Byron commented in the same entry that Chunee was well behaved.

Smiles, sorrow and wonderment vied with one another while looking around this extraordinary show. A bold choice for the exhibition curator Robert Wenley, I imagine, until the many stories behind the artworks and layers of interest were unearthed, it was both interesting and thought provoking. Questions of freedom and captivity arose; each of these magnificent animals had been separated from their fellows, taken from their native habitat, and brought to an alien country to become crowd-pulling exotic wonders until their deaths.

Rudolph Ackermann’s 1812 aquatint of the menagerie is compulsive viewing and unnerving at the same time. It shows the cages close together; the lion next to the tiger, monkeys above, Chunee at the end; and well-dressed visitors agog. The sense of excitement, of wonder is almost palpable; I’d have been agog too. It was one of the most affecting images on show.

But the exhibition does not point fingers. Back then, Europeans knew little about the exotic beasts they had brought home, even less about how to keep them. Samuel Shaw’s essay in the catalogue Private Menageries and Public Zoos c.1760-1860: Celebrity Beasts as Emblems of Empire, examines some of these phenomena.

Curator Robert Wenley says: “Acclaimed as one of the finest of all European ‘old master’ animal bronzes, the Barber’s sculpture of Miss Clara will be seen for the first time in the ideal context of its most closely related other versions, together with a wonderful range of paintings, drawings, prints and works of art featuring this much-loved rhinoceros, and similarly celebrated historical pachyderms. New attributions will be tested and affirmed, and Miss Clara’s celebrity revisited and reassessed. While we are now rightly concerned about the plight of these magnificent beasts in their depleted native habitats, we are better placed than ever to appreciate the huge impact of Miss Clara and other behemoths on their rare appearances in early modern Europe.”

The Barber Institute’s Director, Nicola Kalinsky, says: “Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art promises to be both a visually stunning exhibition, but is also a poignant and timely exploration of humankind’s complex but often damaging relationship with the animal kingdom.”


· The term pachyderm is an obsolete taxonomic classification, but it is commonly used to describe large thick-skinned mammals such as elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, and tapirs.

· Indian rhinoceros, also called the Indian rhino, greater one-horned rhinoceros, is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, as populations are fragmented and restricted to less than 20,000 km².

· The Greater one-horned rhino population once spread across Asia but, due to hunting and habitat loss, by the early 1900s, numbers had dwindled to fewer than 200. Fortunately, thanks to strict protections put in place by the Indian and Nepalese authorities, population numbers recovered to around 2,500 animals by 2005.


Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500-1860

Barber Institute of Fine Art, Birmingham

Showing until: 27 February 2022

More information HERE

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated full-colour paperback catalogue published by Paul Holberton Publishing: Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500-1860.


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