Black-Footed (Jackass) Penguin, Zoo Series, London 1995. © Britta Jaschinski.
Randy Malamud writes:
Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo.
The O.K. thing on Sunday is the walking in the Zoo.
So sang Victorian music-hall artist Alfred Vance – the Great Vance! – in 1870, appearing as a dandy London “swell” recounting his excursion to Regent’s Park. The Fellows of the Zoological Society of London were not amused by his contribution of the word “zoo” to the lexicon, dismayed that the common monosyllabic moniker trivialized their importance.
“ZSL London Zoo,” as it calls itself today, opened to the Fellows of the Society in 1828, and to paying visitors from the public at large in 1847. Some of its cages (or “enclosures,” in today’s softer euphemism of zoo discourse) date back to that era: the Raven’s Cage was erected in 1829, and the Giraffe House still in use was built in the 1830s.
Walking in the zoo today, one feels many shadows of the past: not just from the physical compound of Decimus Burton’s nineteenth-century architecture and grounds, but also from the historical legacy of imperialism. The zoo was the project of Sir Stamford Raffles, imperialist extraordinaire. His day job was subduing and plundering Java and Sumatra as a colonial agent for the East India Company. As a hobby, he amassed animals during his exotic adventures, and this menagerie became the Zoological Society’s founding collection.
Zoogoers looking at these penguins’ silhouettes might recall the shadowy legacy of captive animal display as a celebration of Victorian triumphalism, offering spectators a taste, an amuse-bouche, of the British Empire’s global conquests. The intent was to persuade the masses that they benefited somehow from the imperial enterprise – that is, “the white man’s burden,” achieving domination and ownership, imposing commercial, cultural, political, and ideological control upon all the world’s different regions and habitats and cultures. The proletariat’s payoff was simply being able to see all these geographically diverse and exotic creatures and bask in the prowess that facilitated the exhibition of such a splendid corpus of animals in the heart of London.
Are the animals actually there at all, or are we just watching shadow-puppets playing out the nostalgic fantasy of imperial control?
© Randy Malamud.
Zoo by Britta Jaschinski is published by Phaidon.
Cumberland Terrace, NW1. Photo © David Secombe, 1988.
From The Magus by John Fowles, 1966:
Beyond her stretched the grass, a quarter mile of turf to the edge of the park. Beyond that rose the Regency facade, bestatued, many and elegantly windowed, of Cumberland Terrace.
A wall of windows, a row of statues of classical gods. They surveyed the park as if from a dress circle.
[…] The afternoon sun made them [the houses of Cumberland Terrace] gleam with light, that Olympian elixir of serene, remote, benign light one sometimes sees in summer clouds.
Although John Fowles’ epic and impossibly romantic novel about the power of myth and storytelling is mostly set on an isolated Greek island, he chooses to end his story in NW1. In the final chapter of the novel, Fowles’ rattled ‘hero’ and his girlfriend have an angsty scene in Regent’s Park, where Nicholas wonders whether they are being spied upon from the windows of John Nash’s Cumberland Terrace. This is a brilliant example of a novelist employing a real location to enhance the themes of his narrative: Fowles exploits the theatricality of Nash’s park-side architecture to suggest that his punch-drunk protagonist continues to be an unwilling player in a drama staged for an unseen audience.
It is a fitting conceit, as the glimpses of Nash’s terraces from the park bely the (relatively) prosaic houses behind the grandeur of the facades. This louche and rather endearing architectural trick led Sir John Summerson, the celebrated eminence grise on all matters Georgian, to stick the boot in thus:
It is magnificent. And behind it all – behind it are rows and rows of identical houses, identical in their narrowness, their thin pretentiousness, their poverty of design. Where the eye apprehends a mansion of great distinction, supported by lesser mansions and service quarters, the mind must interpret it as a block of thin houses, with other blocks of thin houses carrying less ornament or none at all. The sham is flagrant and absurd. The terraces are architectural whims; and though Nash was serious enough in his intention, the effect is an odd combination of fantasy and bathos which only the retrospect of a century can forgive*.
Summerson’s aristocratic disdain is a bit hard to stomach here, and I think we are entitled to give Sir John the bird on this one. Fowles seems to have a better idea of what Nash was up to, and what he succeeded in doing. Nash’s terraces are there to enhance the public space, they exist to ennoble the walkers in the park, they lend drama to the business of taking the air. It is also at least possible, if not likely, that if they had been ‘dream palaces’ in a more concrete sense they would have gone the way of so many of the grand, inconvenient mansions of Piccadilly and Mayfair, swept away by ruthless economic imperatives well into the post-WW2 era. We can be grateful that the modest ambitions of the houses behind Nash’s palatial frontages have proved adaptable to changing circumstances, and so ensured their survival.
Unforgivably, Summerson also neglects to mention that Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who had to contend with an invasion of Cybermen outside Cumberland Terrace in 1968: although one could say that it fell slightly outside his brief.
… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011.
(*Georgian London, Sir John Summerson, 1945/1969.)