The Last Giraffe of Walworth

Opened in 1831 by Edward Cross, the Royal Surrey Gardens in Walworth hosted a huge number of grand events; from re-enactments of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and The Great Fire of London, to spectacular fireworks displays and hot air balloon flights. The gardens housed a large music hall as well as one of London’s first zoos.

The Zoological Gardens included a large circular domed conservatory at its centre which housed a pond of exotic fish and birds as well as cages of large carnivores, including lions and tigers. Feeding time was a big affair and keepers were known to tease the hungry carnivores to ‘put on a good show’ for the visitors. Other exotic animals such as pigmy elephants and monkeys were kept at the zoo which rivalled the equally new London Zoo at Regent’s Park.

In 1843 five young giraffes were purchased for the Zoological Gardens. Bred from captive giraffes in Africa, they were bought at just 6 weeks old and were hand-reared. Their journey to Walworth took them across Africa travelling for 35 days to Cairo. At such a young age it was too far for the young giraffes to walk so they were strapped to the side of camels for transportation. From Cairo they travelled along the Nile by boat. Passage to Britain was booked on a ship from Alexandria, however, the young giraffes were growing taller and a 15ft high space had to be cut into the ship in order to transport them safely. Once arrived in London the animals were walked through the streets, from the docks to the zoo, under cover of darkness so that the sight of ‘strange horses’ didn’t scare the local residents. The giraffes, the first on public display in Britain, caused quite a stir – their “Nubian attendants” even more so, becoming celebrities in their own right.

Giraffes and their attendants (P02185)

The Cuming family visited various events, fairs and fetes at the gardens and saved posters, tickets and souvenirs as part of their growing collections. The only surviving souvenir from Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens is a lovely plaster of Paris model of a one of the young giraffes, which stands around 38cm high. This was added to the collection by Henry Syer Cuming in the mid-1800s.

However, in 2013 a fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall which housed the Cuming Museum. The model giraffe was rescued but sadly had been broken into six pieces, all of which were dirty and discoloured from the smoke and fire, as well as being water damaged in the aftermath. Along with other damaged items the giraffe was sent to Plowden and Smith for restoration.

After numerous trials conservator Francis Toohey decided that the most suitable way to clean the fragile surface was with deionised water and white spirit, applied with a moist cotton bud and immediately dried. It was very slow and delicate work.

Once cleaned, work could begin on putting the giraffe back together piece by piece. PVA adhesive was used to bond the fragments together again and small holes or missing parts were made up with a soft acrylic filler and plaster of Paris tagged with Barium sulphate. As well as referring to photographs of the model before the fire conservators also researched giraffe anatomy, paying particular attention to the shape of the skull, to ensure the reconstruction would be accurate.

As different fragments of the giraffe suffered different fates during and after the fire – some badly scorched or soot damaged, others more seriously water damaged – it meant that although the structure was once again intact, the damage was still noticeable. It was decided that while any fills would be colour matched as closely as possible the patchwork colouring of the different fragments would remain, conserving the damage caused by the fire as part of the history of the object itself.

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You can now view a 3D model of the reconstructed giraffe on Sketchfab.

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After the fire

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

Three years ago, on 25 March 2013, a huge fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall building.  The Cuming Museum had its public display galleries on the ground floor of that building, with over 900 objects in display.

All museums dread major incidents like this and we all have strategies in place to deal with them.  The London Fire Brigade also has rescue plans in place for historic buildings and objects.  Top priority is always life and limb, but once assured people are safe the fire brigade works hard to help preserve what they can.

In the Cuming Museum’s case the emergency personnel did a brilliant job of rescuing over half the objects on the day of the fire and the museum team spent the next year salvaging and recovering more of the museum’s collections.

Cuming Museum displayLike most museums, the Cuming only ever had a fraction of its collections on display at any one time but new objects were exhibited all the time through temporary exhibitions.  The rest of the collection was safely stored elsewhere and was not affected – but even so the job of conserving the material affected by the fire was a big one.

Damaged historic buildings, objects and archives are cared for by trained conservators.  Many museums have these on staff but as a small museum the Cuming does not, so had to seek out a firm which could tackle the job.  Many conservators work alone and large firms are rare.  So to treat several hundred objects at one time would mean big pressure on even the largest firm.  For this reason the objects were sent in small batches so the chosen firms could assess, conserve and return them in a manageable way.

Plowden and Smith was the main firm selected to take on the bulk of the job.  They have several different conservation specialisms, from wood and ceramics, to paper and textiles.

The museum’s insurance covered the cost of work but only to return the objects to the condition they were in before the fire.  It was decided that most of the objects would be cleaned and very gently conserved.

When you think of a fire in a museum (or anywhere else for that matter) you automatically assume most of the damage comes from flames or smoke.  However in our case very little was touched by the fire itself and not even very smoke damaged.  The big problems came from water damage and broken glass.

The fire brigade uses tons of water to extinguish major fires.  It saturates everything and gets absolutely everywhere.  It has to be done, but the water itself causes a lot of problems during the later clean up.

Also in the Cuming’s case, in order to get at the objects the fire brigade had to smash their way into the high quality cases used for display.  The glass in these kind of cases is designed to turn to powder when struck and this powder liberally coated most of the objects.

So Plowden and Smith, along with two other conservation firms who took on very specialist material, had two tasks: to deal with moisture damage and to get out all the glass.

Simon Moore and Janie Lightfoot Textiles joined the conservation effort focussing on taxidermy and rare pacific island material from the first voyages by Europeans to the region, most famously Captain Cook.

Janie Lightfoot Textiles’ team dealt with glass too, but their major work was severely damaged pieces, such as the kid gloves which had become very shrunken due to the water and heat.

Taxidermy is the Marmite of museum collections.  People either love it or hate it.  Modern taxidermy is making a comeback but our taxidermy is very old and we would never collect new kinds.

Our most famous “stuffed” animal is our little black bear, which Richard Cuming bought at a sale in 1806 from the Leverian Museum.  This museum was a very early museum and, in the late 18th century, was based just off Blackfriars Road.  The bear was on display from the very first moment when the Cuming Museum opened in 1906, and many generations of children remember him.

Being furry, he was covered in glass and dust after the fire and Simon Moore, an expert in restoring natural history objects, spent an incredibly long time extracting it all while at the same time trying not to pull out any hair – either his or the bear’s.

In another example, the conservator at Plowden and Smith removed all the glass from the velvet associated with Queen Caroline’s funeral coffin. Leaving the glass would just mean the damage would continue.

Work on objects like these took well over 18 months to complete. Not everything merited attention and the instruction was, for most objects, to do the least needed in order to preserve them.  However some objects needed a lot of work and were significant enough to need resources focussed on them.  In a future blog we’ll look at the giraffe sculpture from the lost “Walworth Zoo”. The sculpture is the only surviving memento of the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens.

Meanwhile the collection is in storage but continues to be exhibited and digitised in anticipation of new space. The Cuming team in particular is grateful for all the help it received to rescue the collection and the enormous amount of good will and support from the community.