When I went today from Z to A … from the Zoo to the Art Gallery
Spent Monday afternoon this week amidst the busy-ness of an art exhibition being taken down and a new one “Stuff and Nonsense” being put up at Falmouth Art Gallery in Cornwall, quietly shifting bits of my small Edward Lear collection around this lovely lockable well-lit wall cabinet.
Eventually after several hours, it settled to look like this. I wanted it to look a bit like a bookcase or bookshelf, so some titles are showing their spine only.
“Follow Alice down the rabbit hole and emerge into our extraordinary summer exhibition! A celebration of the stuff we all like – from the bizarre to the everyday.
All ages will be delighted by the nonsense rhymes and illustrations of Quentin Blake, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Spike Milligan; fantastical stories including Rossetti’s wombat and the Cottingley Fairies; hilarious new automata; and shrines and assemblages from local artists and community groups.”
Featuring loans from the British Library, British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, TATE, Tower Hamlets Local History Archive, the Victoria & Albert Museum and private collections. Supported by the Government Indemnity Scheme and a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant from Art Fund. (Exhibition blurb)
Many illustrators have produced illustrations of ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ by Edward Lear, which was voted the Nation’s Favourite Children’s Poem in 2014: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/02/owl-and-the-pussycat-edward-lear-voted-favourite-childrens-poem
Within the ‘window cabinet’, there are a selection of these old and recent illustrations of ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ poem by Edward Lear himself, Beatrix Potter, Charlotte Voake, Claire Ruddock, Michael Foreman, L. Leslie Brooke, Malcolm Greensmith and even’ Owl and Pussycat’ stamp first day cover postmarks.
In the window cabinet, there are also Lear nonsense illustrations by Arnold Lobel and vintage hand puppets. There are several examples of Victorian era copies of Lear’s own limericks, nonsense botany (The Biscuit Tree and Tigerlillia terribilis) and one reproduction of his superb bird illustrations which he painted and engraved the animal collections at Knowsley and London Zoo in early Victorian times.
I’m not sure if my loan contribution from the small Newquay Zoo collection and my own private collection of Lear stuff is classed as ‘nonsense’ (from one of Britain’s finest nonsense poets) or ‘stuff’ because I have slowly been collecting ‘stuff’ about Edward Lear for years. Maybe my window collection is both happy nonsense and stuff at the same time.
On display also are other people’s family shrines and collections from small mantlepiece collections etc, to bigger collections because everybody I know collects some meaningful stuff.
Falmouth has an interesting collection of children’s book illustrations and automata to draw on for this exhibition
Arguably my Lear window cabinet collection is also small shrine to a man of silliness, ‘bosh’ and ‘nonsense’. Some of my pieces are ‘memorabilia’ books, an enamel plate and mug (for children or collectors?) from the Royal Academy 1988 centenary exhibition of his death.
There is a lovely photographic portrait of the bearded Lear on the front of an Arts Council Edward Lear exhibition catalogue from 1958. Elsewhere his cartoony self caricatures and self portraits can be seen, amidst all the cats!
High up on the top shelf for adults and tall children to read adults is one such Royal Academy book with a lovely 1939 poem by W.H. Auden (he of “stop all the clocks”, used in Four Weddings and A Funeral”) and print of Lear illustrations alongside pictures of Lear’s grave and that of his beloved cat Foss, his pussycat. (Sadly Lear never seemed to have a pet owl in the same way. Maybe it sailed away, for a year and a day …)
Elsewhere scattered amongst loans from the British Library, British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, TATE, Tower Hamlets Local History Archive, the Victoria & Albert Museum and Spike Milligan’s family are some more bits of nonsense that I have picked up for or since the Lear Bicentenary in 2012.
Continuing a long running partnership including Darwin’s bicentenary 2009, Falmouth Art Gallery and Newquay Zoo were planning a 2012 event or exhibition, which sadly due to ill health never happened. Lots of other zoos and museums and galleries happily did celebrate Lear’s birthday and bicentenary on May 12th 2012.
So here we are, celebrating nonsense, only seven years late …
Hugh Stewart, the Falmouth born film producer (1910-2011) amassed in later life a collection of over 100 translations and audio recordings in different languages of ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ poem – we hope that some of these audio versions are available as an audio part of the exhibition.
What else is on loan from the zoo and my collection?
Stuff and nonsense in my collection that wouldn’t fit into the Edward Lear window display has snuck into other cabinets as ‘placeholders’. Hopefully they will hold these places into the exhibition. It’s quite competitive for space as there is a lot of nonsense out there!
Other pieces are more officially framed up – some hand painted Lear limerick pages (by a child?) marked W.L.A. 1893 and some of the lovely Royal Mail Stamp postcards from the 1988 Lear Issue with Lear drawings.
Out of curiosity, like many zoo keepers, I have a wide collection of animal related things from animals on stamps and cigarette cards to lead and plastic zoo animals. Working on the education / children’s side of zoos I have collections of ‘animals in art’ books, postcards and poetry books.
I have included a couple of ‘flip the animal body parts to make a new mash up nonsense animal’ books by Sara Ball (‘Porguacan’) and Tony Van Meeuwissen (‘Remarkable Animals’) ; some of Tony’s original book illustration paintings for this book are on display. Alongside them are my fabulous full set of 1934 Wills’ cigarette cards Animalalloys. These are suitably randomly arranged in 16 weird animal combinations inside the glass display case. Sadly none of them (yet) make rude animal names.
Looking at these ‘mixed up’ animals, I was reminded of a comment by Amelya, one of the local Newquay primary school children whom I worked with on Newquay Zoo’s 50th Anniversary (this May 2019). She had an imaginative prediction of how zoos will have changed in another 50 years, by our zoo centenary in 2069. Knowing that many animals were becoming rare or extinct, she thought, why not invent new ones? “In 50 years time zoos will be full of animals. Animals with different DNAs all mixed up to make them really cool and even more cute and scary.”
Having a childhood love of fantastic nonsense from Lear and Lewis Carroll through to the Goons, I have included a couple of the published Goon Show Scripts 1 and 2, reproduced with the cast’s crazy Goon character doodles, alongside an old 1960s Penguin collection of Spike Milligan paperbacks with his great doodles and illustrations to illustrate his silly verse and ‘Milliganimals’.
Keeping the zoo connection is an old Jersey Zoo / Dodo Club Millennium Calendar, salvaged after zoo use. Inside and hopefully finding a place on display is a colourful and daft Gerald Durrell cartoon drawing of his travels and animals, like the drawings that he used to do live and in public! As Lee Durrell his widow says, “Gerry loved sketching, and he would illustrate his lectures about animals and the [Jersey Zoo / Durrell Wildlife] Trust with quick doodles using a marker pen.” (quote from Durrell shop website, see Blog Post Script B.P.S.)
It is well worth a trip to see the rest of the Stuff and Nonsense exhibition (22 June to 7 September 2019) that I saw in part being mounted around me. I can’t wait to go back and see it all up and busy with people. The exhibition should appeal to children and adults of all ages, perfect for the school summer holidays. Award-winning Falmouth Art Gallery is well known as “Fabulous, Free and Family Friendly.” Exhibitions are often accompanied by a programme of fun art workshops as well.
The exhibition title phrase “stuff and nonsense” or “non-sense” itself has interesting and illustrious origins: https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/stuff-and-nonsense.html
I hope you make it along to and enjoy this interesting and varied exhibition.
You could have great fun counting how many owls and how many pussycats you can see in the whole Stuff and Nonsense exhibition? Tigerlillias count!
Thanks to Henrietta, Natalie and all the amazing team at Falmouth Art gallery for their hospitality, putting my small part of their exhibition together.
Blog posted by Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo Education Department, 20 June 2019.
Blog Post Script
Jersey Zoo / Durrell Wildlife Trust are selling some Gerald Durrell drawings as prints as fundraisers for conservation: