Volunteer Charlotte Clark’s take on the Giraffe

My first shift volunteering for HOUSE Biennial involved sitting in a room with a life sized giraffe. Confused, slightly jealous of this giraffe’s fancy velvet attire I didn’t know his backstory and was very intrigued. I then attended the In Conversation session with Alexandra Loske and Invited Artist Laura Ford. This gave me a whole new perspective on the giraffe  and I’ve now grown very fond of him and will be sad to see him leave his temporary home in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

Alexandra Loske knows everything about giraffes and told the very bizarre, but also cruel story about the giraffe currently lying on his back in the gallery. This was the giraffe that belonged to King George IV. He was the first giraffe to reach England’s shores and arrived in 1827 from Egypt as a diplomatic gift from the viceroy Muhammad Ali. He did not travel alone, along with him was a second giraffe, a taller sturdier one and due to luck of the draw that giraffe was destined for King Charles X in France. Strapped extremely uncomfortably to a camel for the first part of their journey and then bundled into boats for the latter, they parted ways, and King Charles allowed his giraffe to walk a lot of the way, in fear of the giraffe becoming crippled. George’s giraffe was not so lucky, and by the time he got to Windsor he had broken bones and deformed limbs. You can see the little leg splints on him in the Laura Ford exhibition. He was kept in the King’s Menagerie at Windsor Great Park where George housed a collection of exotic animals he had acquired.

John Doyle: Le Mort, 1829, Coloured Print
Collection of the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

The caricatures drawn at the time depict George riding on his giraffe and although this isn’t correct, it is safe to say this giraffe did not have a happy time living as a pet for the King. No one in England had seen such a creature before, originally classed as half camel half leopard, it was fed on various diets. It has been thought that the giraffe was fed steak. I don’t know if leaves were ever on the menu for this poor giraffe. Not surprisingly, this giraffe did not live very long and died within two years of being here, ending his days unable to stand unaided.The King was distraught, but what did he expect ??

For me A King’s Appetite is just as much a wake up call to us in the 21st century as it is looking back to the King’s absurdity. I’ve sat with the giraffe for a number of hours and felt sorry for his mistreatment and confusion as to why anyone would think it ok to treat another being like this. Laura Ford’s careful positioning of each of the characters in the gallery space creates the sense that you’ve stepped into one of the caricatures and become an additional spectator – allowing you to get up close and personal, noticing some of the similarities between then and now.

Charlotte Clark

Image, Ricardo Reverón Blanco