Exhibition | Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on September 22, 2021

Rhinoceros, called Miss Clara, bronze, ca. 1750s, 25 × 47 × 15 cm
(Birmingham: Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Purchased 1942, No.42.9)

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Today (22 September) is World Rhino Day. The catalogue for the upcoming exhibition is available from Paul Holberton and (in North America) from The University of Chicago Press:

Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500–1860
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, 12 November 2021 – 27 February 2022

Curated by Robert Wenley

This exhibition tells the fascinating story of the rhinoceros Miss Clara, the most famous animal of the eighteenth century. It is the first ever major loan exhibition devoted to Clara and celebrity pachyderms in the UK. The latest in the Barber’s acclaimed object-in-focus series, Miss Clara focuses on a small bronze sculpture of a rhinoceros, and also considers other celebrity beasts, the emergence of menageries and zoos, and the significance of the capture and captivity of these big beasts within wider academic discussions of colonialism and empire.

‘Miss Clara’ arrived in Europe from the Dutch East Indies in 1741, brought by a retired Dutch East India Company captain, Douwe Mout van der Meer, who then toured her round Europe (including England) to huge acclaim and excitement. Jungfer Clara (so christened while visiting Würzburg in 1748) was the first rhino to be seen on mainland Europe since 1579 and the object of great wonder and affection. Her fame generated a massive industry in souvenirs and imagery from life-scale paintings by major masters to cheap popular prints; there were even Clara-inspired clocks and hairstyles.

Miss Clara is one of the most remarkable and best-loved sculptures in the Barber and was praised by the great German art historian and museum director Wilhelm von Bode as “the finest animal bronze of Renaissance”—a telling tribute to its quality, even if he misunderstood its date. The Barber’s cast is one of only two known, the other being at the V&A. There are also closely related marble versions. Other celebrity beasts featured will include the elephants Hansken, Chunee, and Jumbo; Dürer’s and various London rhinos; and the hippo Obaysch, star of London Zoo in the 1850s, and the first to be seen in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Robert Wenley, ed., with Charles Avery, Samuel Shaw, and Helen Cowie, Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500–1860 (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021), 96 pages, ISBN: 978-1913645021, £17 / $25.

The catalogue looks at the phenomenon of Clara but, unlike previous studies of the subject, focuses primarily on sculptural/3D representations of her, within the context of other celebrity pachyderms represented by artists between the 16th and 19th centuries. It is comprised of entries for the thirty exhibits—included extended texts by Dr Helen Cowie (York University) on images of Chunee and Obaysch—preceded by three essays. Robert Wenley, Deputy Director of the Barber Institute, and the curator of the exhibition, relates the story of Miss Clara (and of other celebrity rhinos) and explores the sculptural representations of her, presenting new research into their attribution and dating. The eminent sculptural historian, Dr Charles Avery, formerly of the V&A Museum and Christie’s, provides a complementary essay about celebrity elephants in Europe between 1500 and 1700. Dr Sam Shaw of the Open University, discusses private menageries and public zoos in the UK between about 1760 and 1860 and considers celebrity pachyderms as emblems of empire and colonialism.

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