Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Britain

  • Christopher Plumb

Student thesis: Phd


Exotic animals are conspicuously absent in economic histories and discussions of material culture in eighteenth-century Britain, even though they were highly sought-after luxury goods. As a response, this cultural history is a step towards a fuller understanding of the broad yet related meanings that a range of exotic animals held in Georgian Britain. A study is structured around four themes of meaning. The significance of exotic animals is explored, in turn, through their function as commodities, as objects of sensory encounter, as political symbols and charismatic material for anatomical investigation. The spaces through which animals moved, the contexts of their display and the meanings different audiences produced are considered throughout.Several species of animal were transfer points for cultural configurations, and a selection receives detailed cultural biographies here. Their histories are utilised to understand practices of collecting and spectatorship, national cultures and natural history. The work of naturalists and anatomists is intertwined with other ways of knowing exotic animals in Georgian Britain. Exhibition and the production of knowledge were interrelated, so ideas produced by some practitioners were absorbed, transmuted and modified into different cultural forms and contexts. The reality of exotic animals as commodities is established through a history of animal merchants in London and, from there, their wider place in eighteenth-century Britain is discerned. The development of animal trade from itinerant bird sellers to high-end menageries tell, once collated, a story revealing a usual but significant part of commercial and exhibitionary culture. By historicising the sensory encounters of spectators, readings of broader cultural anxieties about malodour and the bodily proximity of women and children to animals are possible. The senses were managed and ordered around exotic animals, and it is argued that experiencing them in this period was predicated on specific and fluctuating notions of risk and endangerment. Exotic animals acquired political symbolism, especially in matters of monarchy. Associations were generated and circulated by public representations that foregrounded humour, political satire, sexuality, luxury and fashion. Interwoven within these concerns were serious and not so serious discussion about Enlightenment attitudes and the "Improvement" of Nature. It is argued throughout that new spaces emerged for the spectatorship of exotic animals during the long eighteenth century, and, as such, that these animals should be historicised as eighteenth-century British phenomenon.
Date of Award1 Aug 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJohn Pickstone (Supervisor) & Samuel Alberti (Supervisor)


  • museum
  • menagerie

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