As gardeners and garden historians we are used to hearing about the discovery, trade and cultivation of non-native plants. We know that as western Europeans discovered, then traded with and finally conquered much of the rest of the world plant hunters were not far behind the explorers, the merchants, the generals and admirals. Indeed sometimes they were the same people. What we probably do not think about quite as often is the way that the animal and bird kingdoms were plundered as much as the plant world, with exotic specimens transported round the world for the pleasure, curiosity and potential economic benefit they could bring to their new homes and owners.
With the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and the opening up of trade routes to Asia via the Cape this passion for collecting the new, the unusual and the exotic developed rapidly. Even England, a late starter in the whole business, was affected. In 1575 Robert Langham wrote a detailed description of Robert Dudley’s garden at Kenilworth including the massive Italianate aviary. This was used as part of the evidence for the recent recreation by English Heritage. Langham admired the top cornice painted and gilded to look as though it had been ‘beautified with great diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires’ as well as the varied songs and colours of the ‘lively birds, English, French, Spanish, Canarian, and I am deceived if I saw not some African’. These were likely to have been the canary and other new introductions such as guinea fowl.
Much of Langham’s lengthy description can be found at:
There are also several Elizabethan portraits which include rare birds such as parrots as signs of the owner’s wealth, although I cannot think of any which show unusual animals in the same way. Please let me know if you do, but I think there is a good reason for this discrepancy which I’ll come onto towards the end of this post.
By the 17th century Louis XIV wanting, as always, to outdo the rest of Europe built an extraordinarily large and elaborate menagerie in the park at Versailles to contain his growing collection of unusual creatures. And of course where Louis led other monarchs followed…and where monarchs went their aristocratic elites followed too.
England was no exception. Although Charles II was stony broke in comparison with his French cousin, he still managed to create an aviary and small menagerie in his revamped St James Park. Such creatures were written about, painted and then made more popular as the subject of prints. They were even used for models for drawing lessons!
As more of the world was explored so more animals and birds were brought back to western europe and to new homes in menageries and collections, and since western empires expanded much more rapidly from the mid-18thc onwards it is from the mid-18thc that we see the appearance of a large number of private menageries.
It’s important to point out that these creatures were not ‘pets’ – a term that according to the Oxford Dictionary doesn’t even appear in English until 1710 – but luxury commodities which could be bought, sold, exchanged, displayed and exploited.
Many Georgian aristocrats constructed special buildings in their parks and gardens to house newly imported creatures, observe them, breed them and display them to their friends. “Exotic animals were … present in the residences of the aristocracy and gentry in meaningful numbers [but] despite substantial scholarship on the Georgian home, there is a conspicuous absence” of research about them. [See Christopher Plumb’s Ph.D thesis, p.20 http://christopherplumb.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/plumbthesis2010.pdf p.20%5D x
Amongst those listed on our database is the menagerie at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire. The park was laid out by by Capability Brown for the Earl of Craven in 1770. Brown was given a pretty free hand as a letter from the earl shows: “I desire you to exert your utmost abilities to improve the place and shall leave everything else to you.” The menagerie is tucked away in woodland at the extreme eastern end of the parkland, [to the left on the image] and close to the lake. The various new outbuildings around the estate were designed either by Brown himself or more probably his son-in-law Henry Holland. It is likely that the inspiration for the design came from Versailles which Holland had almost certainly visited.
The central building was not for the animals themselves but designed for the owner and his guests to view them from in comfort. Close by were the keeper’s house and other associated buildings for storage and shelter for the animals.
The estate was sold in 1923 and large parts of the mansion demolished and the rest stripped for saleable items. It was bought in 1964 by Coventry City Council and is now a hotel and country park. After suffering decades of vandalism and neglect the menagerie pavilion was eventually sold off as a wreck but has been rescued and converted into a 5 bedroomed house. The restoration project featured in a Channel Five television programme “Build a new life in the country”.
And if you want to know what it’s like inside now then take a look at: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-to-rent/property-27978930.htmlas
as it was available to rent earlier this year for just over £800 a week. The owners say they have seen no sign of its previous animal occupants but it is still surrounded by a very high brick wall that encloses the garden right down to the edge of Brown’s lake.
Apart from the entry on our database:
there are two very readable and thorough reports about the whole estate. Coventry City Council who own the Country Park have a detailed management plan, including a full history of the site, which is downloadable at: http://www.coventry.gov.uk/site/scripts/google_results.php?q=coombe+abbey+management+plan
There is also a Conservation Area Appraisal on the estate prepared by Rugby Borough Council in whose boundaries the estate actually lies. This can be found at: Download Now – Rugby Borough Council
It was through reading these that I discovered that Lord Craven’s menagerie was not the first on the site…and indeed was probably not as grand or unusual as the earlier one.
A previous owner, Sir John, later Lord, Harrington of Exton was a courtier who was entrusted with the education of James I’s daughter, Princess Elisabeth – later famous as Elizabeth of Bohemia or the Winter Queen – shortly after the king came to the throne in 1603. She came to live at Coombe Abbey with an entire court in miniature.
Harrington had clearly created a wonderful garden at Coombe and it, and the princess’s stay, are described in a book by one of her ladies in waiting, Lady Frances Erskine, which were published in 1770 as Memoirs relating to the Queen of Bohemia. It is available as a free download at:
Elizabeth was apparently “extremely fond of all the feathered Tribe, and never read or heard of any beautiful or uncommon Bird, or Fowl, but she wanted to see it; and she now formed the Design of collecting, in this, little Paradise, all the different Kinds that are in Nature; which, though she could not accomplish, yet she soon had a greater Variety than I ever saw” [p.113] She managed this by asking everyone she knew “who ever had any Thing curious, or could procure it from any of their Acquaintances, in other Parts of the World” and “they hastened to present it to the little Princess.” [p.114]. As a result “her Garden and Green house, were as well stored with Curiosities, and exotic Plants, as her Minagerie, with Creatures.” [p.114].
Harrington was clearly a highly educated and inquisitive man who was at the cutting edge of advances in science and technology. He and the princess used his microscope “which had been very lately discovered by Dribill, a Dutchman”, for studying insects, and this became “a frequent and favourite Entertainment”. [p.117-8] Lady Frances also reports that “There was one of the best Telescopes at Lord Harrington’s, that had yet been made, (it was not above fifty-two Years that they had been ﬁrst invented) and the looking through it at the moon and other Planets was always an Entertainment to us.” [p.109]Elizabeth was given “an island” on the estate, and there she ordered “a little thatched cottage” to be built for “a poor widow and her children” to live in, “take care of the different sort of Fowls that were-to be kept there; the out-side of this House was to have some Alteration made in it, to give it the Appearance of an Hermitage, and near it a Grotto, the Adorning of which with Shells and Moss, was the Amusement of many of her leisure Hours” [p.111]
She also ordered an aviary “like that she had heard Queen Elizabeth had admired so much, at the late Earl Of Leicester’s in Imitation of which, the Top of this was round, with coloured Glais, that looked, at a little Distance, like rough Emeralds and Rubies, seemingly the Produce of a Rock, overgrown with Moss, which formed the Back and Roof of the Aviary ; the rest was inclosed with a Net of gilt Wire: Within were many Bushes, for the Birds to perch upon, and Water falling continually from the artiﬁcial Rock, into a shallow Marble Bason, in which the pretty little feathered Inhabitants drank and bathed at Pleasure, and Recesses were made in the Rock for them to build their Nests in.” [p.112]“NEAR this, a Cottage was repaired for an old Man, who had the care of the Birds; and as there are many beautiful ones in other Countries, which cannot live in this, such as the Bird of Paradise, and humming Birds, their Feathers and Skins were stuﬀed, and hung about the Aviary. Representations of several other Creatures were placed in different Parts of the Wood, and the Pictures of such, whose Skins could not easily be had, adorned the little wooden Buildings.” [p.113] What I’m sure you noticed is that most of the exotic ceatures Elizabeth was collecting were birds. Presumably this is because their diet, living space, and even simple size made it much easier to transport birds around the world than any animal, but particularly large ones. Nor are exotic fish of any sort ever mentioned. Transporting them would have been even harder, as the need for fresh water, correct temperature and oxygen would have been almost impossible. The easy display of fish would also have posed problems before the invention of plate glass enabled aquaria to be made, and only goldfish from China seem to have survived the perils of long sea journeys to become the exotic element in garden pools. Coombe’s two remarkable menageries are just the tip of the iceberg, and I’m planning on returning to the subject in the future. Check out our database, the Bartlett Society, Sally Festing’s article or Christopher Plumb’s thesis [and forthcoming book] for more information:
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