A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Archive for May, 2014

Guy the Gorilla, The Natural History Museum

Guy, a Western Lowland Gorilla,  © The Natural History Museum, London

Guy, a Western Lowland Gorilla, © The Natural History Museum, London

Guy the Gorilla was a superstar from the moment he arrived at London Zoo in 1947. He was originally born in what was then French Cameroon in Africa. He was captured as a baby by Paris Zoo, and sent to London Zoo on Guy Fawkes Night in 1947. The one year old gorilla was so terrified by the fireworks that wouldn’t settle, until a keeper volunteered to sleep next to him.

Guymania broke out in the 50s and 60s and regular zoo visitors were allowed to feed the crowd pleasing beast. He used to run from one end of his cage to the other to growl, grizzle and generally show off to spectators. One of his favourite tricks was to catch sparrows that flew into his enclosure,  hold them in his hand for a while and then let them go. People didn’t know what a gorilla looked like and they had never seen such a huge animal before. He weighed 240 Kgs, which is nearly 40 stone!

He died from a heart attack after a dental operation in 1978. He was aged over 35 years old and was very overweight. His death made the front pages of all the major newspapers. His skin was sent to the taxidermists at the Natural History Museum, so that the larger than life gorilla could continue to capture the imagination of members of the public. His skin was put in a freezer for three years. Being frozen for such a long time caused the skin to shrink!

When the taxidermists tried to mount the skin they found that it would not do up at the back, if it was stuffed to Guy’s original measurements. The team of three taxidermists had to decide whether to slim him down or patch up the back. They decided to patch him up at the back so that you can see him in all his glory. This extraordinary specimen shows how the art of taxidermy has progressed since the Victorian times. The taxidermists were able to look at photos and camera footage to try to recapture Guys vibrant personality. Gorillas are amongst our closest relatives and they do think and feel in a similar way to us.


The Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Pissarro, 1897, The National Gallery


The Boulevard Montmartre by Pissarro

The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, Pissarro, 1867, © The National Gallery, London

This beautiful painting provides a snapshot into the world of the French impressionist painters. In the 18th century Montmartre was the artistic hub of Paris and it still is today. If you stroll down the streets of Montmartre today you will probably be stopped by artists offering to draw your portrait for a fee. You can imagine Picasso drinking absinthe with Matisse at a bohemian cafe, or Pissarro admiring Edgar Degas’ paintings at his studio.  Camille Pissarro was a cool character and remained friends with many of the more temperamental Impressionists, such as Gauguin, Picasso, and Cezanne.

The blurring quality of the new electric lights in this painting suggests the refraction of the light from the rain on a wet day. Refraction is the bending of the light, when it passes through a substance such as water. It creates interesting and magical light effects. Carriages are lined up on the left side of the road, waiting to pick up theatre goers emerging from Moulin Rouge around the corner. Throngs of people stroll past the shop fronts, undeterred by the bad weather. The bright white electric light from the street lamps contrast with the warm, orange glow of gas lights from the shop windows. Gas and electric lighting were modern developments, making them a fitting subject for such a progressive artist.

Pissarro painted fourteen street scenes showing this view, in different lighting and weather conditions. He wrote in 1897, ‘I am delighted to be able to paint those Parisien Streets that people have come to call ugly, but which are so silvery, so luminous and vital…This is completely modern!’

Pissarro was born in 1830, in the Danish Virgin Islands, off the Gulf of Mexico. He moved to France in 1855 and went to school in Paris, where he was inspired by Impressionists, such as Monet and Manet. Pissarro was sometimes disheartened that his work was not well received by the public. But his son Lucien reassured him, ‘You are surprised that the public does not look at your paintings and you explain this by supposing they lack something essential. But you do not realize that it is only a question of fashion? You are too reserved, you have ideas that are too expansive, and you are too sensible to fashionable. Indeed, you have yet to be discovered.’ This is true of many great artists and innovators, who were not appreciated in their own time.

An Old Woman by Quinten Massys, c. 1513, The National Gallery

An Old Woman, Quinten Massys, c.1513 © The National Gallery, London

An Old Woman, Quinten Massys, c.1513 © The National Gallery, London

Do you think of art as something beautiful? Why has this ugly old woman been chosen for display at the National Gallery?

Quinten Massys enjoyed painting satirical pictures which had a moral message. This withered old woman is wearing a very unflattering low cut Italian gown, which does not suit her. Massys is mocking her and warning against the follies of being ‘mutton dressed as lamb’.

Medical research has shown that this unfortunate woman was actually suffering from Paget’s disease, a chronic disease which enlarges and deforms the bones. This is a very severe case as her jaw bones have been enlarged, her upper lip extended and her nose has been pushed upwards.

It was thought for a long time that Leonardo Da Vinci inspired Massys’ paintings, but recent research has now revealed that it was actually the other way round. Massys inspired Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the greatest painters of all time!

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Da Vinci was not the only artist inspired by Messys. John Tenniel was a British artist in the 19th century who created illustrations for Lewis Carole’s  fantastically imaginative book, Alice in Wonderland. Tenniel’s drawings of the extravagant, overbearing and wicked Ugly Duchess character were inspired by ‘An Old Woman’. In 2010, Tim burton created a visionary film version of Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonhma Carter. Helen Bonham Carter plays the ugly duchess character, who has a ridiculously large head with exaggerated features. It is a great example of how a painting of an ugly old woman from 1513 can influence popular culture today!