British Museum blog

Farewell to Curious Beasts

Alison Wright, exhibition curator, British Museum

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney, the first venue on the tour

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney, the first venue on the tour

The British Museum touring exhibition Curious Beasts: Animal Prints from the British Museum is in its closing weeks at its final UK venue, Ferens Art Gallery in Hull (7 June – 26 August 2014). Since October 2013, 86 prints made between the 15th to the early 19th centuries and containing sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre animal imagery have been exhibited at three venues across the UK, opening at Compton Verney in Warwickshire before travelling to the Ulster Museum (National Museums Northern Ireland) in Belfast, and Hull. The exhibition is part of the British Museum’s Partnership UK programme, which is committed to sharing collections and expertise with museums and organisations outside London. In 2013–2014 over 2,792 objects were on loan at 187 venues throughout the country.

Curious Beasts explores humankind’s curiosity about the natural world, as it was expressed in the vibrant print culture of the early modern period. Printmaking emerged as a major art form and communication tool in the 15th century, coinciding with an increasing interest in and investigation of flora and fauna. The exhibition looks at how printmakers contributed to knowledge of animals, but also at the wildly different ways in which the animal subject inspired graphic artists. Our enduring fascination with animals also proved to be a good way to bond with like-minded colleagues in other museums, and to make the most of their own collections – leading to some novel encounters between the British Museum’s prints and objects such as stuffed rabbits and rhinoceroses.

Jan Saenredam, A beached whale near Beverwijk, engraving, 1602 (1871,0812.1545)

Jan Saenredam, A beached whale near Beverwijk, engraving, 1602 (1871,0812.1545)

The idea for Curious Beasts was sparked many years ago when, working as a Museum Assistant in the Department of Prints and Drawings, I opened a box of 16th-century Dutch and Flemish prints – while looking for something else entirely – and was startled to discover Jan Saenredam’s magnificent engraving of a beached sperm whale, from 1602.

The remarkably accurate representation of this mysterious giant is bordered by an equally remarkable frame that gives us broader insight into the ways people thought about whales: images of eclipses, earthquake and plague tie into the idea that the monstrous sea creature dying on land was a bad omen. The whale is surrounded by a crowd of sightseers, testifying to the intense curiosity about strange and rare creatures in this period – some of these people would no doubt have been among the intended audience for the engraving, too.

Saenredam’s whale is now at the heart of Curious Beasts, and I have greatly enjoyed showing it, in all its peculiarity, to new audiences. The exhibition takes inspiration from the complexity of Saenredam’s print, drawing on the diversity of the British Museum’s collection to put natural history studies in the context of people’s wider relationships with the animal world. The range of material covers everything from religious subjects (e.g. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) to political satire and practical objects – one etching of a rabbit was designed as a target for archery practice. Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros is probably the best-known object in the exhibition, and a 1620 impression is shown alongside prints by Rembrandt, Goya and Stubbs, and an array of fascinating and striking works by lesser known artists, the majority of which have never been loaned before.

Albrecht Durer, Rhinoceros, colour woodcut, first published 1515, this edition after 1620 (1877,0609.71)

Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros, colour woodcut, first published 1515, this edition after 1620 (1877,0609.71)

Working with our three partners has been educational and inspiring – there have been so many great responses to the beauty and quirkiness of the British Museum beasts. Our lead partner Compton Verney brought taxidermy into their galleries for the first time, including a baby Indian rhinoceros borrowed from Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: an intriguing comparison with Dürer’s woodcut of the same species (he famously never saw the rhinoceros in real life).

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney: the stuffed rhinoceros

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney: the stuffed rhinoceros

Compton Verney also wanted to put on a complementary display that would feature their edition of the designer Enid Marx’s linocut series, Marco’s Animal Alphabet. A collaboration with Leicester Print Workshop brought printmaking up to the present day with an exhibition of new works titled A Fantastical Animal Alphabet, and a pop-up print studio run by their very appropriate Artist in Residence, Kate Da’Casto: I have fond memories of conversations about our mutual love of old master prints and the more gruesome relics of natural history.

The exhibition has changed at each venue. In Belfast the Ulster Museum decided to include Lorenzo Lippi’s lovely painting, Allegory of Fortune with a monkey, and also to display taxidermy from its extensive natural history collection, much of it prepared by the respected Belfast firm Sheals, established in 1856. The museum’s famous exhibit Peter the polar bear, prepared in 1972 after he died at Belfast zoo, was in a nearby gallery.

Curious Beasts at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull: the rhinoceros wheelbarrow, made by Hull furniture makers Richardson & Sons, 1862

Curious Beasts at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull: the rhinoceros wheelbarrow, made by Hull furniture makers Richardson & Sons, 1862

The exhibition’s present incarnation at Ferens Art Gallery is in the largest gallery space yet, and the curators at Hull Museums were keen to use Curious Beasts as an opportunity to bring some of their objects out of storage and into conversation with the British Museum’s prints. Over 30 objects were eventually selected, including a delightful rhinoceros-shaped ceremonial wheelbarrow made in 1862, a sperm whale tooth with scrimshaw carvings, and artworks including the truly bizarre and difficult-to-display 1960s wooden sculpture Criletic Delay Adjust (‘Zebra Legs’) by Mark Ingram, which triggered much reminiscence among the curators and technicians.

Sadly it’s the end of the road for this particular UK travelling exhibition, but the beasts have life in them yet. Halfway through the tour, we received word that San Diego University Galleries were interested in taking the show for October 2014. I can’t wait to see what they decide to do with it.

Curious Beasts is at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull until 26 August 2014, and then at the San Diego University Galleries from 2 October – 14 December 2014

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2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. I wish I had all these prints on fabric. Oh the dresses I’d have then!


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#todayimet goddess of love, Aphrodite. In this statue the voluptuous Aphrodite crouches down at her bath and turns her head sharply to her right, as if surprised by her audience. This Roman copy from the 2nd century AD is based on an original sculpture from Hellenistic Greece. This statue is lent to the British Museum by Her Majesty the Queen.
You can fall for the goddess of love in Room 23, one of our Greek and Roman sculpture galleries.
We’re celebrating @instagram's 5th birthday by sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the Museum #WWIM12 For @instagram's 5th birthday we’re sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the British Museum.
#todayimet this Ming Dynasty figure, who helped judge people in the underworld! The belief in Hell entered China with Buddhism during the early 1st millennium AD. This figure of a judge’s assistant is holding records of evil deeds under his left arm. Meet this fearsome figure (if you dare!) in our Asia gallery (Room 33) #WWIM12 We’re celebrating @instagram's 5th birthday by sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the Museum.
#todayimet Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt for 67 years over 3,000 years ago. This colossal statue is one of the largest pieces of Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum. Like all Egyptian statues, it was originally painted. Traces of pigment remain: black for the eye pupils, red for the skin, and blue and yellow for the stripes on the headcloth.
Meet the pharaoh for yourself in our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) #WWIM12 Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together the incredible Iron Age, Roman and early medieval collections of the British Museum and @nationalmuseumsscotland.
Roman control of southern Britain broke down around AD 410. New leaders established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, and Roman towns and cities were largely abandoned. Neighbouring communities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales continued to develop their own unique identities. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art, learning and literacy, perpetuating and reinventing local traditions. Communities here spoke languages that we now call Celtic, and practiced a distinctive form of Christianity.
Striking stone crosses, such as this one found in Monifieth, Scotland, combined ancient Celtic curves with Anglo-Saxon knotwork and interlace designs to express these distinctive Celtic identities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This sculpture may have been a personal memorial or grave-slab.
Slab of grey sandstone with a cross on one side. From Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, c. AD 800–900. National Museums Scotland.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together stunning objects from the British and Irish Isles as well spectacular loans from across Europe.
This magnificent cauldron is one of the most important and intriguing finds from ancient Europe. It reveals connections between communities thousands of miles apart. Although it depicts objects used in central and western Europe,
it was found in a bog near Gundestrup in Denmark, beyond the northern edge of the Celtic regions. The style of the designs suggests that it was made further east, in Bulgaria or Romania. The strange animals and cross-legged pose of
the antlered figure hint at even wider influences, from as far afield as Asia. The scenes on the panels give a glimpse into a world of ancient myths, and the stories of gods and heroes whose names are now lost.
The Gundestrup cauldron was probably reserved for important rituals. It is likely that most people would have viewed it from a distance, seeing only the forbidding faces of gods and goddesses on the outer panels. The fantastical scenes on the inside would have been revealed to those allowed to experience the cauldron close up.
Gundestrup cauldron. Iron Age, c. 100 BC–AD 1. Found in Gundestrup, northern Jutland, Denmark. @nationalmuseet, #Denmark.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our major new #Celts exhibition is now open! Come on a 2,500-year journey tracing what it means to be Celtic...
The peoples first referred to as Celts lived across much of Europe north of the Alps, in villages or fortified hilltop settlements. Although not a single distinct group, they were interconnected, sharing cultural ideas across the continent. The objects they made for feasting, religious ceremonies, adornment and warfare were both stunning works of art and powerful ways to convey shared values and beliefs. Their unique abstract style set them apart from the classical world, but their technological accomplishments stand on par with the finest achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
2,000 years ago valuable objects like this were cast into rivers. This magnificent shield was found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge. It was not made for serious warfare as it is too short to provide sensible protection. Instead, it was probably made for flamboyant display. The highly polished bronze and glinting red glass would have made for a great spectacle.
The Battersea shield. Iron Age, c. 350–50 BC. Found in the River Thames, London, England.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at

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