Empire Entertainment

Oil painting of a scene of people looking at various exotic animals in cages. A man in the centre of the frame pokes a caged tiger with a stick.


Robertson Royal Menagerie – 9 Strand, c 1820
by unknown artist
oil on canvas
acquired 2012
ML 1354

Senior Curator

This painting depicts a variety of people visiting a travelling menagerie in London. It’s, we think, the early part of the 19th century but we don’t know the exact date and we don’t know who the artist is. It was certainly a travelling menagerie because we can see the tops of the red-rimmed cartwheels there. So the idea is that the cages have been wheeled in, off the road, and you can see a patch of blue sky and the roof of the tent there.

It’s, I think, quite a disturbing scene. The animals are all arranged there in two layers of cages. There’s a baboon. There’s also a lion. Further back you can see, in the corner there, there’s a couple of kangaroos and you can see the zebra and then you can see the outline of an elephant, the elephant’s trunk in the far right.

There’s a central figure of the zookeeper. He seems to be possibly provoking one of the tigers to respond, perhaps, and to give a great big roar to the crowd. In the far left, you’ve got a Scottish soldier. He’s wearing a kilt and he’s bringing a young lady down to see some of the animals there. And you’ve got a respectable family, a man, woman and a small boy, and then you’ve got another family, with a black footman, holding a hand of a child. And then you’ve got another man who’s holding up a dog, who seems to be sort of baiting the animals as well.

So I think it’s quite a sad scene but it was a very popular form of entertainment. There was even the Royal Menagerie in the Tower of London, which dates back to the 13th century and that existed through to around 1835, when it was finally closed due to concerns for animal treatment, the beginnings of that idea of cruelty to animals and having animals live in better conditions. Menageries were on par, popularity-wise, with the fairground and travelling theatres and circuses and in fact, during the winter, when it wasn’t high season, often the circus owners, they would keep their animals at the Strand. So perhaps some of these animals had come from circuses and then back in the summer they would then travel out into the countryside, entertaining people.

When you read historical newspapers there are accounts of various travelling menageries going through various counties and towns and occasionally you will see references to locals walking by country lanes and being terribly surprised by an escaped lion and so forth. So the library acquired this a couple of years ago because it supports a lot of our early collections documenting Australian animals and our collection really highlights European interest in Australian animals, where they would be documented in a very scientific, academic way. And so I think this is sort of a sad end to that idea of collecting and it shows the extent and the power of the British Empire, to be able to bring animals from across the world, from Africa, India, the Americas and Australia to London to be a form of entertainment for the masses.