ANIMAL ART OF THE DAY for International Zebra Day #1: George Edwards, George Stubbs, and the first British zebras

January 31st is International Zebra Day!

To celebrate, I’ll be sharing zebra art on the social media feeds all day today, and taking a closer look at a few of the works here. First up, images of the first known zebras imported into Great Britain:

1. The Female Zebra
George Edwards (English, 1694-1773)
Hand-colored copper-plate engraving dated 1751
published in Edwards’ Gleanings of Natural History Pt. 1 in 1758 as Plate 223
Wellcome Collection

The caption of this illustration notes it was “drawn from the living Animal belonging to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.” The zebra belonged to Prince Frederick (1707-1751), one of two that was sent to him from the Cape of Good Hope in the 1740s. The stallion died en route, but the mare seen here arrived alive and went on to live at the royal menagerie at Kew Palace, where it was documented by naturalist George Edwards.

The distinctive coat color and pattern depicted here identifies this zebra as a Quagga (Equus quagga quagga), a now-extinct subspecies. The last known individual died in captivity in 1883; only one was ever photographed alive, and only 23 skins are known to exist today still, making illustrations such as these valuable visual records.

There is also an ongoing effort to recreate quaggas through selectively back-breeding individuals of the closely related Burchell’s Zebra (Equus quagga burchelli) known as the Quagga Project. This isn’t a true “de-extinction,” as the resulting lineage is only similar in external appearance and does not involve genetic cloning. To avoid confusion, this recovered phenotype is now called the Rau Quagga to distinguish it from the “true” Quagga, which remains officially extinct. Still, the results to at least recreate the look have been quite impressive so far:

“Rau Quaggas” from the Quagga Project beeding program

2. Zebra (aka The First Zebra Seen in England), 1763
George Stubbs (English, 1724–1806)
oil on canvas
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Animalier and anatomist George Stubbs (1724-1806) is best known for his depictions of horses. While these were usually domestic horses in various equestrian and sporting contexts, he was on one occasion given the opportunity to paint a much more exotic equine — Queen Charlotte‘s new zebra. The resulting painting, seen above, now resides in the Yale Center for British Art‘s collection.

Just as with her late father-in-law’s efforts to secure a mating pair, once again only the mare survived the journey from the Cape of Good Hope. This was also the first zebra to be more widely seen by the British public:

[The zebra] was brought from South Africa in 1762 by Sir Thomas Adams, the commanding officer of H.M.S. Terpsichore, as a gift from the governor for young Queen Charlotte. Two live specimens were dispatched from the Cape of Good Hope in what Malcolm Warner has described as “Noah’s-ark fashion,” but only the female survived the voyage. As soon as she reached London, the zebra was installed in the menagerie at Buckingham House (Buckingham Palace) and became an instant celebrity. “The Queen’s she-ass,” wrote one observer, “was pestered with visits, and had all her hours employed from morning to night in satisfying the curiosity of the public. She had a sentinel and guard placed at the door of her stable. . . . The crowds that resorted to the Asinine palace were exceeding great,” (MacClintock, 1992, p. 4). In fact, she also inspired a number of rude songs—including this one that circulated in broadsheets: Ye Bucks and ye Jemmies who amble the Park, Whose Hearts and whose Heads are as lightsome as Cork, Through “Buckingham Gate”, as to “Chelsea” you pass, Without Fee or Reward, you may see the Queen‘s Ass.

The museum’s record goes on to note that Stubbs’ equine expertise allowed him to paint this zebra in such a way that we can positively identify not just the species, but the exact subspecies — a Cape Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra zebra):

Stubbs’s grasp of the anatomical differences between zebras and horses is, of course, masterly, and in the present work the backward direction of the ears, the dewlap on the underside of the neck or the front, and the “gridiron” pattern of the stripes on the nether regions, immediately above the tail—all these are exactly consistent with zoological verisimilitude and, in fact, identify the present animal as the smallest of three subspecies of zebra, the Cape Mountain.
Cape Mountain Zebra and Young
Brian Snelson [cc by 2.0]

The Cape Mountain Zebra, endemic to South Africa, is a modern recovery success story. It was once on the verge of extinction, with less than 50 individuals remaining by the 1950s; but thanks to the implementation of an intensive conservation program their numbers were steadily built back up, and by the end of 2015 the population was estimated to be over 4800 with a continuing steady annual growth rate. These efforts resulted in their IUCN Red List status being downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable in 2008, and then finally into the safe zone of Least Concern in 2015 (see the full IUCN report here).

Here is a bonus video profile of Stubbs’ Zebra from the museum:

John Baskett, friend and art advisor to the Center’s founder, Paul Mellon,
discusses the painting “Zebra” (1763) by George Stubbs.

For more on George Stubbs as the preeminent painter of the horse, check out this book:

Stubbs & The Horse (2004)
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