One of the important historic gardens in the world is at Chiswick House, Lord Burlington’s Palladian country retreat in west London. But while the house and grounds are extremely well-known I suspect most people still don’t know about the menagerie that was there in the early 19thc.
Lord Burlington may have exotic sphinx on his gateposts and designed a deer house, which is still there…
… and like many of his contemporaries he may also had an aviary full of exotic species, but his descendant, the 5th Duke of Devonshire went one better. He kept an elephant and four giraffes in his garden!
According to James Rennie in Library of Entertaining Knowledge: The Menageries [1828,vol.2,p.7] elephants had “become easy of attainment” in England. Rennie tells the history of elephants in captivity in Europe and he includes the story of how one came to be living in the gardens of Chiswick House in west London.
The Duke of Devonshire was apparently asked by Lady Hastings who was going to India what he would like sent as a present. He must have been surprised some months later because his answer – “Nothing smaller than an elephant” – had been taken seriously, and Sadi “a very handsome female of the species was consigned to his care”.
Sadi was “remarkable for her sagacity and her docility” and she was much admired by George Canning, the then Prime Minister, and his family who were regular visitors to Chiswick.
One day Sadi received a visit from a gentleman elephant who was housed in the commercial menagerie at Exeter Change on the Strand. This may have been Chunee, whose sad end was related in an earlier post. The Duke’s sister, Lady Harriet was rather taken aback to be asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury over dinner, and in front of distinguished guests, if the visit “was one of friendship or of galanterie”. It proved she added that “in short, the morals and decency of the age are at a low pitch.” [October 7 1820, from Letters of Harriet, Countess Granville, 1810-1845, 1894, vol.1 p.184]
Sir Walter Scott also wrote an account of meeting Sadi on a visit to Chiswick. “Afterwards I drove out to Chiswick, where I had never been before. A numerous and gay party were assembled to walk and enjoy the beauties of that Palladian dome. The place and highly ornamented gardens belonging to it resemble a picture of Watteau. There is some affectation in the picture, but in the ensemble the original looked very well. The Duke of Devonshire received every one with the best possible manners.
The scene was dignified by
the presence of an immense elephant, who, under charge of a groom, wandered up and down, giving an air of Asiatic pageantry to the entertainment. I was never before sensible of the dignity which largeness of size and freedom of movement give to this otherwise very ugly animal. As I was to dine at Holland House, I did not partake in the magnificent repast which was offered to us, and took myself off about five o’clock.” [John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the life of Sir Walter Scott, Volume 4, p.173] Nor presumably did he take a ride on the elephant as was apparently the custom, since according to another visitor, the German prince Herman von Pückler-Muskau, Sadi was tame enough to be ridden around the lawn by anyone.
The elephant obviously had a long term impact on the public consciousness because as late as 1844 Czar Nicholas I of Russia visited Chiswick, and his first question to the Duke on his arrival was ‘Where is the elephant’? The Duke replied ‘Sir, she is dead, but there are four giraffes and seen from the windows these shy creatures are aligned along the edge of the lake’. The first giraffe had apparently been bought by the Duke immediately after Prime Minister George Canning had been taken ill and died at Chiswick, “pour me distaire” [to distract him] from grief at the loss of his friend. [John Pearson, The Serpent and the Stag, 1984, p.176]. The giraffe was a rarity in English menageries. The Library of Entertaining Knowledge explained that, before a giraffe was given to George IV in 1827, the animal had a mythical status, like ‘the unicorns, and sphinxes’.
Pückler-Muskau was not altogether impressed by Chiswick commenting that the gardens had only stagnant slimy water, which is sometimes so low that the elephant, if he were thirsty, might drink it up at a draught. He also noted that the other animals were not quite so well-behaved. A llama was “of a much less gentle nature; his weapon is a most offensive saliva, which he spits out to a distance of some yards to anyone who irritates him; he takes such good aim, and fires so suddenly at his antagonist that it is extremely difficult to avoid his charge.” [Hermann F. H. Pückler-Muskau, Tour in England, Ireland and France in the years 1828 and 1829 , Volume 3, 1832, p.]
The Duke’s sister Lady Harriet, didn’t care much for his kangaroos either. He was “improving Chiswick, opening and airing it; a few kangaroos, who if affronted will rip up anyone as soon as look at him, elks, emus and other pretty sportive death-dealers playing about near it.” She”owned it almost seemed a mercy” when one of them died in childbirth a few weeks later, but notes that the lawn at Chiswick that day looked “beautifully variegated with an Indian bull and his spouse, and goats of all colours and dimensions” [p.192, 18 November 1820]. She told her sister that much preferred his new acquisition – an ichneumon. “I believe it is quite harmless, but as rapid as lightning, here there and everywhere, over and into everything.” although “you would never stand it!”
But do you have any idea what an ichneumon is/was? These days it usually refers to a genus of wasps but in fact it is an old name for the Egyptian mongoose, although in the case of the Duke’s creature it may well have been an indian mongoose instead.
According to The Age newspaper “there were also several ostriches and animals of the deer species” which were “objects of curiosity.” [The Age, 5 August 1827] and many of the various animal and birds freely roamed the gardens, the hare, the white stork even the macaw and the golden pheasant amongst them. But not content with collecting them alive, when they died many were stuffed and mounted. In 1824, for instance, payments were made to Benjamin Corbett, of Berkeley Square, ‘Naturalist, Animal Preserver to their Royal and Serene Highnesses Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold’ for stuffing birds (£6. 9s. 9d.), and to William Wilson of Manchester for supplying glass cases for a stuffed fox and duck. Later, when the family was consolidating its vast number of country houses and estates, many of these stuffed specimens ended up at Chatsworth. The white stork in its ebonised and glass case was amongst the things sold off at Sotheby’s in 2010 as part of the Chatsworth Attic Sale. Perhaps understandably there were no stuffed remains of elephants or giraffes…or at least none that survive.
The story of the Duke’s exotic collection [and indeed the rest of the house’s history] can be found in one of Eleanor Rudge’s witty designs for the place mats in the new Chiswick House cafe. The others incidentally can be found at:
The story is covered in a more traditional way in Gillian Clegg’s article, “The Duke of Devonshire’s Menagerie at Chiswick House” in English Heritage Historical Review‘[ Vol. 3, 2008, pp.123–127]. Unfortunately this does not appear to be freely available on-line. There is also an extensive series of audio guides to Chiswick by the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, one of which is about the giraffe and another a short account of the Duke’s collection. These can be found at:
The 6th Duke of Devonshire was not just a collector of animals but also took a great interest in plants, and was responsible for the marvellous camellia house and Italian garden at Chiswick as well. More of these in the future perhaps….
For more information on Chiswick House generally see: