ZSL has had a long history with artists, in particular natural artists: people such as John Gould, Edward Lear and Joseph Wolf. The famous lion sculptures by Edwin Landseer in Trafalgar Square in London were based on studies that he did of our lions, and the story goes that the reason the paws of lions are a bit lacklustre is because he obtained the body of a lion from us but took so long making detailed reference sketches that the feet had begun to decay by that point.
Our archive also holds many artists tickets that allowed students and professionals to come into the gardens and draw the animals from life. Between 1937 and 1962, we even had a studio of animal art where students could come to observe and draw animals.
But it wasn't only external artists who were interesting in the cross section between art and nature. In 1964 surrealist artist Joan Miró visited the Curator of Mammals – Desmond Morris. Along with being highly regard and experienced in the animal world - Morris was also a surrealist painter himself. He describes in his autobiographical book Watching that he had been taken with making art from a young age, and upon discovering surrealism at sixteen “…it was a movement that offered me, at a single swipe, a convenient home in which I could place all my unfocused feelings of unrest…”
Morris had previously had paintings in an exhibition with Miró, in 1950 in London, which was a great delight to him as Miro was one of his favourite artists. Miró was interested in seeing paintings which had been made by a chimpanzee who lived at the Zoo between 1954 and 1964 called Congo. Part of Morris’ research into primates was around Congo and his ability to draw and paint. Congo was also known to the public as a regular guest on the Granada TV show ‘Zoo Time’ which Morris presented between 1956 and 1966. Congo produced over 400 drawings between the ages of 2 and 4 which were perceived to be in the Surrealist style.
Morris organised for Miró to meet many animals whilst at the Zoo on his visit, such as a Hornbill with a bright pop of colour around the eye, which reminded Morris of Miró’s paintings. Miró drew a number of images that day in exchange for a Congo painting, one for Morris’ wife Ramona, one for Morris himself in the front of a book of Miró drawings, and one in our Visitor book – which remains in the archive today.
Morris became the director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1969 and continued to have a career with one foot in the art and one in the zoological world. Recently, a retired member of staff brought in a new addition to the archive – some art drawn by Morris on some committee papers from the 1960s. You can see these wonderful images below:
The Buildings of London Zoo by Peter Guilley (1994)
Watching by Desmond Morris (2007)
ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library and Archives is a wonderful and unique collection and information resource about animals and their conservation. Information is vitally important in conservation.
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