Unusual 'zoophemera' - animal tiles from the 1930s

by Ann Sylph on

ZSL Library and Archives team regularly receive intriguing emails, one recent email was particularly interesting and led to me to receive an unusual package of ‘zoophemera’ (zoo ephemera) in the post -  a selection of 1930s monkey and bird tiles, each ceramic tile is unique.

10 monkey tiles and 3 bird tiles
Monkey and bird tiles by John Skeaping, from the 1930s, donated 2019

We already had 42 surviving examples of monkey tiles in our collection but were under the impression that there were no surviving bird tiles apart from four trial tiles in the ownership of Walter Vivien Cole’s family. Imagine my excitement and delight when Richard Grantham contacted me kindly offering to donate ten monkey tiles and three bird tiles! He had received them from his uncle Thomas Edwin Grantham (1910-1993) who had been Head Keeper in the Small Carnivore House in the 1950s/60s.

In the 1930s several of ZSL London Zoo’s animal houses were tiled as part of the Zoo’s renewal of signage. Julian Huxley, Secretary of ZSL 1935-42, commissioned the tiles, they were thought to be ideal for zoo use as they could be easily washed down keeping the animals houses clean.

Huxley was keen to link animals and art. He was married to Juliette Huxley who had studied art at the Central School of Art in London where she had been a student of sculptor, John Skeaping RA (1901-80). With the help of the Huxleys, Skeaping organised art classes at ZSL London Zoo. Skeaping and his students painted the tiles.

Each tile is unique, depicting a particular species, hand lettered with the common name and where the animal is found. They measure 4 x 4 inches. Most of the monkey tiles are signed with a letter ‘S’ so they are probably by John Skeaping himself. Others received as part of this donation are signed ‘CES’.

Color painting of the head of  vervet monkey on a white tile
Vervet monkey tile signed 'C.E.S.'

Walter Vivien Cole (1913-1999) was one of Skeaping’s students at the Central School of Art and I had thought that he was the artist for the bird tiles. However the three bird tiles we received as a donation from Richard Grantham are signed ‘S’ so we are assuming these are also by Skeaping.

Colour painting of a bird on a white tile

If you know more about these tiles or the names of the other artists, please do contact us.

The tiles seem to have been 4 inch blanks and a small gas kiln in an office basement was used to fire the decoration.

My thanks to Richard Grantham for his donation of the tiles to our collection. Also thanks to the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society which published an article about the tiles in the magazine Glazed Expressions, 1992, Winter, No. 25.

Painting of a brown lemur on a white tile - full view
Brown lemur tile - one of the tiles already held in ZSL Library & Archives

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.

ZSL's purpose is to inspire, inform and empower people to stop wild animals going extinct. Collections & resources in ZSL's Library & Archives support ZSL's purpose.

Our collections can be explored and discovered in a variety of ways –

Painting of a talapoin monkey on a white tile - profile view of the animal
Talapoin monkey tile already held in ZSL's collections



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