Though Reading Museum is currently closed due to the coronavirus, we know how important it is for people to be able to keep accessing and enjoying art, culture and history.
So, we’re delighted to be able to welcome you this virtual journey through our ongoing exhibition: ‘ANIMAL: World Art Journeys’.
‘ANIMAL’ brings together creatures both recognisable and imagined, with a breadth of forms, styles, colours, shapes and sizes that matches the very variety of the animal kingdom itself.
Many of the objects are part of the Reading Museum collection, while others are on loan from the Museum of English Rural Life and some have been kindly lent to us by the people of Reading.
People have celebrated animals in art for a least 40,000 years, from the very first cave paintings of early nomads. These depicted the animals they lived near and depended on for food, whether in the forest or around their homes.
Today, artists of all kinds and mediums continue to celebrate and reimagine their local wildlife. This wall hanging, a contemporary Sri Lankan batik, was designed by the fantastic artist Anil Jayasuriya, whose mother Ena de Silva (1922 – 2015) was fundamental in re-establishing Sri Lanka’s batik industry.
Batiks are textiles made through a technique known as wax-resist dyeing. Before applying dye to the material, the artist brushes hot wax over select parts of it, which become resistant to the dye and keep their original colour. This creates a striking image, and the technique can be repeated to create highly colourful and vivid designs just like this one.
One of the predominant themes of animal art has always been the hunt.
While hunting was once about meeting the primordial needs of staying alive, it developed in many parts of the world into a sport and even an elaborate show.
This African gourd is engraved with hunters pursuing four-legged animals, zebra or horses.
Gourds, hard-shelled large fruits, have been adapted historically for many purposes, from containers to ladles and even musical instruments. The tip of this fruit has been removed to create a container for liquid. Artists would carve, incise, or burn the shells with a heated knife to create intricate geometric designs – depicting scenes, figures or animals. These could be cross hatched to add greater depth or rubbed with ash to produce contrast.
Now we travel to the depths of the sea. For mankind, this has been home to mythical beasts for millennia, as well as a source of food and animal oil. Fish and sea-life can often be found adorning objects used at mealtimes, from grand containers for precious salt to spectacular table decorations.
This Japanese vase, dating to the Edo Period (1616-1868), depicts two gigantic octopuses holding flowers and a third fighting a man with a spear.
Octopuses fighting humans or using tools were commonly produced on tobacco pouches, netsuke (small carved ornaments) and katanas (swords). Ceremonial kabuto (helmets) of the Japanese samurai (the hereditary military nobility of Japan) were sometimes crowned with ornate animals, octopuses included, above the wearer’s face.
Africa, the largest continent in the world, is home to some of planet’s most awe-inspiring animals. From Victorian hunters to modern conservators, the world has been enthralled by its creatures big and small, from its strident elephants and great cats, to graceful gazelle and slithering snakes.
Still today, snakes are revered and dreaded across the world. Their limbless bodies are symbols of gods and images of primordial, unformed states of being.
Along the length of this staff from our collection, a snake slithers from the earth towards the handle. This motion, following the path of the shaft from the ground, represents the snake transferring the power of the Earth to the hand of its wielder.
This piece, made in Nigeria, shows a mythical, heavily stylised animal with a bowl on its back. It’s a pipe, and the bowl would have been for tobacco!
Pipes like this one were regularly decorated with great intricacy, and often highly exaggerated in size. They could be given as wedding presents or gifts to maintain social bonds and ties of kinship.
From the earth, to the sky.
Birds have always been popular with artists. And just as the inhabitants of the skies are richly varied, so too are the ways that artists represent them.
These corn straw birds, made from wheat straw and ash in 1930s England, are known as roof finials. Traditionally, these were corn dollies that adorned the roofs of British thatched cottages, fitted by a pole to the gable. They came in a range of designs: from animals and vegetables, to crosses, crowns, boats and even scenes of folk life.
Historically, they served an apotropaic purpose (meaning something that has the power to prevent evil), deterring evil spirits, witches, as well as regular, plain-old birds. Alternatively, they would bring good fortune and harvests, appeasing the ‘Corn Goddess’.
These finials were made in the 1930s by experts reviving this ancient tradition, and are on loan form The Museum of English Rural Life in Reading.
Mythical creatures have been at the forefront of almost every culture in human history. A part of religion and folklore, decorative representations of animals can have deep spiritual meaning to the people who made them or used them.
This figure is Barong Ket, a fearsome lion-like creature who fights evil spirits and protects children. It is a model of the traditional theatre costume worn by two men who mischievously engage the audience to participate in the Hindu ritual drama.
In Balinese Hindu culture, Barong Ket fights his mother, the demon queen Rangda, who eats children and leads an army of evil witches. The dance with the witch is a story of the fight between good and evil.
Know the saying ‘never smile at a crocodile’? For many people around the world, the crocodile, a survivor from the time of the dinosaurs, invokes awe and respect. Its strength, longevity and stealth concentrate in crocodile shaped objects that give their owners similar qualities. In some cultures the crocodile is central to identity and ritual.
The bottom of this Kundu (drum) from the Sepik region in Papua New Guinea has been carved into the striking shape of a crocodile’s head, its jaw powerfully open. The Kundu is a culturally important object in Papua New Guinea, depicted on the national coat of arms. Crocodiles are commonplace in the Sepik area and symbolically important.
In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh and his priests sought to honour the natural world a different way. Animals were the embodiment of the gods who brought life to the Nile Valley.
This limestone canopic jar lid, excavated at the significant Egyptian archaeological site at Abydos, has been shaped in the form of a baboon’s head. The figure it represents is Hapy, one of the sons of Horus.
Baboons held a sacred place in Ancient Egyptian mythology. However, this did not always translate into keeping the animals safe, as many were mummified to appease the very gods they represented.
Deference to the natural world has always been a part of life in North America and the Arctic. Indigenous communities hunted animals for clothing, food and materials, and their art paid tribute to the animals that sustained them. Artists and makers would use bone, tusk and antler as their mediums. More recently, traditional carving techniques have also been applied to stone.
This contemporary soapstone seal is from Naujaat, north-western Canada. The name is from the Inuktitut language, and means ‘seagull nesting place’, for seagulls are born there each June!
The local Inuit peoples, Aivilingmiut (meaning ‘people of the walrus place’) rely on hunting caribou and seal as well as fishing and trapping. Carving remains a strong part of their community today, using ivories, marble, bone and soapstone.
In the hands of modern and contemporary artists animal representations take on a personal flourish. Some artists want to communicate a particular message, but many paint for their own reasons and leave their works to provide us with a starting point for contemplation. Some paintings are very personal and the viewer can only speculate as to what the artist was thinking when making them.
Both Reading Museum and the University of Reading have bought works by former University of Reading student Patrick Brill OBE, who is better known for his pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith. We hope you enjoyed this delightful piece, ‘What Lobster’, as much as we do!
Another instance of contemporary art in the gallery is the striking ‘Running with Wolves’ by Reading-based artist Lou Jessop.
Combining relief applique and woollen hand stitching, the image depicts the spirit of ‘Wild woman’, an archetype of creativity linked to the natural world. It was inspired by ‘Women Who Run with Wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, an iconic spiritual text exploring freedom, creativity, and womanhood!
Our adoption of animals as pets means that they are often shown as loyal companions to fallible masters like the tragic Gelert, captured in this painting by the artist Charles Burton Barber.
Gelert is the legendary story of the Welsh Prince Llewelyn and his faithful dog Gelert. On returning from a hunt, Llewelyn found Gelert covered in blood and his infant son missing. In a haze of fury, Llewelyn killed Gelert, before finding his son alive and well beside the body of a slain wolf. Llewelyn realised this Gelert had killed the woof and protected the son, and became filled with remorse at his misdeed. He never smiled again.
In this painting, fashionable Victorian sentiment cloaks an ancient folkloric morality tale.
Our final animals are decorative, exquisitely carved from ivory and part of a group of beautifully crafted objects brought back from his travels by cloth merchant and connoisseur Ambrose Petrocokino.
These are 19th century Netsuke (literally ‘root-fix’), traditional carved Japanese ivories. Netsuke were traditional toggles to fasten Inro (purses or medicine containers) to Japanese kimono, and hooked over the edge of the kimono sash.
Netsuke were often commissioned and extraordinarily detailed, while often comedic and even risqué.
Netsuke made from ivory were the most prized, but ones made from wood, amber and nut were also produced.