The Desert, or A Fallen Monarch, by Edwin Landseer, 1849.

The Desert, or A Fallen Monarch, by Edwin Landseer, 1849.

Capturing the Cat

The arrival of big cats to 19th-century London forced a change in the image left by mythology and the Old Masters.

After seeing lions, tigers and leopards on the streets of 19th-century London, the engraver John Landseer decided that the depictions of big cats by Old Masters were bogus. Big cats could now be seen in the city due to a booming trade in exotic wildlife that brought animals from distant lands into public view. Relentless maritime expansion and a buoyant economy had seen London emerge as the trade capital of Europe. Each week, hundreds of foreign animals and birds arrived at its docks for sale to city menageries and travelling street shows.

Early merchants stocked everything from birds and reptiles to ungulates and large carnivores. In 1816 one Londoner complained in the Morning Chronicle of the ‘incessant roar and stench’ of the animals lodged in the heart of the capital. While this citizen did not welcome London’s new bestial residents, artists such as Landseer could now make comparisons between actual species and their pictured counterparts. In response, Landseer spearheaded a project that ‘corrected’ the Old Masters’ depictions of big cats. This was published in 1823 as Twenty Engravings of Lions, Tigers, Panthers and Leopards, a handbook intended for lovers of art and animals, who risked being misled by these earlier wildlife portrayals.

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