Friday, 9 January 2015

Lecture: Exotic birds and animals in the 18th Century garden

Buy a fine singing
bird (1688)
If you're an exotic creature, there's no trusting anything outside in January. From tiny tapirs, tottering giraffes to koalas in mittens our zoological world can be both a lifeline and an unnatural world for the creatures within. I'm clearly no expert on animals, the 18th century, or even the Georgian menageries of old London town, however, yesterday's lecture on exotic birds and animals in the 18th century garden still links to many areas in which I'm interested.

As it is the first in the History of Gardens and Landscapes lectures this term, David Marsh explained that exotica was the theme of  the series; exotica seems to dart about, like a lost traveller, zigzagging through the 18th century. He introduced Dr Christopher Plumb of University of Manchester who is currently writing a book on animals and birds of this period. As a great fan of Timothy tortoise, Christopher's interest in natural history was assured at an early age and he was happy to share some of the colourful stories - both tragic and comic - of England's earliest exotic imports.

Primary sources for research such as this are court records. He has scoured the Old Bailey archives for cases involving birds. He pointed out that life was extremely hard for the itinerant bird sellers of the late 1600s. These people had to capture, rear, and sell their stock. Hovever some were very successful. Mostly based around Holborn and Gray's Inn, this area would have tweeted with the birds waiting to enliven the parlours of London. This area now only resounds with the sound of legal tweets; definitely not as picturesque.

The fashion for song birds - usually canaries - meant that that cage makers were required. However they soon realised that money was to be made selling birds, rather than cages. As businesses grew, specialist shops were set up and around 1700, one enterprising German immigrant set up the 'Bird Cage' on St James's. Here he sold everything that would be needed for keeping birds. A Thomas Ward set up shop in Wood Street in about 1717 and he sold handbooks on how to care for them.

Given the English predilection for poking fun at eccentricities, John Ward produced a satire, which not only compared these small rooms of remarkable clubs of bird fanciers to birds in a cage but suggested that they were also unscrupulous in their business affairs. This wonderful transcript of the court proceedings suggests that there was a good explanation for this suspicion.
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 09 January 2015), February 1790, trial of EDWARD RILEY (t17900224-25).

EDWARD RILEY was indicted for feloniously stealing, on the 16th of February , two wooden bird cages, value 2 s. and five tame canary birds, value 10 s. the property of William Frewen .
I am a plaisterer . On the 16th of this month I lost two wooden bird cages, and five canary birds; it was on a Tuesday; I was moving my goods out of St. Giles's ; I kept them in St. Giles's till the prisoner took them; I saw the cages in the apartments where I lately lived; I laid them in the middle of the room, for the prisoner, who was helping me to move; and he took hold of these, and carried them not to my apartment, but sold them the other side of Moorfields; this I know by his own declaration at the Rotation office, in Litchfield-street. 
Did you find them by his directions? - No, not exactly; I found them at Mr. Sampson's, in a different street.
How do you know these to be your cages? - In one of the cages I made an alteration myself; and they are very remarkable.
Was there the same number of birds, at the time you found them, as when you lost them? - No, there is one not found yet.
Do you believe those to be your canary birds? - I do.
Now what are these cages? - One is a wainscot, the other is a mahogany, or rattan; both wooden.
Did not you give him these cages to carry? - Yes, I did with the rest of the goods.
SAMPSON sworn.
The prisoner came to me with a pair of birds, in a cage, and asked me seven shillings and sixpence for them; I told him I would give you six shillings, at a word; they are here; I would not pay him till I knew who he was; and he said if I would go over with him to a publick-house, he would shew me another cage, and a pair of birds, and so I gave him twelve shillings for the two cages, and two pair of birds; I am sure to the prisoner and that they are the same I bought of him.
I know the man to be the man that was moving the goods; and I went along with the man's wife, and took him; and he said he had sold the birds to one Williams, in Moorfields.
On Friday last Mr. Frewen told me he had lost two cages and five birds, and the name of the direction to seek them, was that of Williams; we however found no such name, but found them at Sampson's.
I was moving this man's goods; I had the key, and at every turn I locked the door; and he was there along time; and when he went out again, I gave him the key, and did not go there again. 
GUILTY . Privately Whipped. Tried by the second Middlesex Jury before Mr. RECORDER.
Fashions change and canaries and finches were no longer a novelty as more exotic stock appeared. As last year's programmes on Georgian England showed us, England was relying more on maritime trade and during this period Port of London traffic increased fourfold. This meant that a broader range of stock was available from the new world - including parrots, chipmunks, turtles. 
Staying on Gray's Inn, because I still can't imagine the smell of exotic pet shops there, in the mid 1700s Joshua Brooks opened a highly profitable menagerie. Starting with birds, he increasingly offered more choice, finally opening a large premises in New Road at Tottenham Court. Advertising bills suggest he sold 100 bird species and by 1775 he was calling himself 'Zoologist/bird merchant' with aristocracy as customers. Unlike many bird men before him, he had a robust reputation and good credit. He diversified again in 1772 and William Young, the Queen's botanist was sending him plants and seeds.

So we know who sold these exotics, but who was buying them? Lady Elizabeth Montagu expressed a reluctance to 'trust anything out of doors' and expressed a dislike of animals and birds, yet many of her associates were collecting specimens avidly. He gave Bowood House as an example where the Lansdowne family had an orang-utan, a leopard and a white fox. All proving exquisite taste and deep pockets.

Another example was Earl Spencer at Wimbledon Park which he said was less enjoyed by the owners, than the people who came to see it. Animals and birds were entrusted to keepers or gardeners which could be a expensive and big task, depending on the size and variety of collections.

Collections required housing and the most stunning example is the menagerie at Stowe from 1781, however they were incorporated into the new fashion for the reshaped landscapes. Humphrey Repton was all about perspectives, turning the scene into elaborate moving wallpaper. The menagerie at Woburn abbey was designed to be an animated garden, with animals as walking garden furniture.

It wasn't just the wealthy but new landscape gardens were something to which the middling sort could aspire; they could adapt the ideas from larger gardens and turn them into smaller affairs. Aviaries set into islands could become birds on verandas. Obviously very few examples of these survive because wire and wooden pens are necessarily temporary structures.

The final example he mentioned was Osterley Park in Houndslow. In 1790s, Sarah Child commissioned a book with portraits of their huge collection of exotica. It is an extraordinarily personal take where all the family was involved in capturing their birds and animals on paper, which was lucky because the collection was dispersed by the family's heirs. She was not the only person to desire a pictorial record, most famously is Stubb's Goodwood moose which looks so melancholy and alone.

He concluded with Elizabeth Montagu's statement about not trusting anything outside. Indeed, he stated, nothing was to be trusted; the climate might be the death of specimens, thieves made off with them, and if even if that didn't happen, they might all be sold on the death of the owner. The trade in exotica was a thriving one and he is determined to carry on the research.

There is always one wag on Twitter and it seems appropriate to record it here.

Why is the ooo-aaaah bird called the ooo-aaaah bird?
Because it lays square eggs.

Thanks @MaybeUMisheard

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