This is the first of two blogposts on the current exhibition in Balliol’s Historic Collection Centre. You can also check out part two. The Elephant in the Room is open to the public on Sunday 15th July and Wednesday 15th August 11.00-4.00pm, all other times by appointment to email@example.com
The subject of the exhibition is everyone’s favourite pachyderm, the elephant. This majestic animal is featured in its zoological, geographical, literary, epic, comic and sporting forms in printed material from the 16th to the 21st century. Also on display is the work of Balliol alumna Dr Lucy King whose work on the effect of honeybees on elephants has helped to improve human-elephant relations in Africa and Sri Lanka.
The first six cases of the exhibition show depictions of elephants in early modern texts that contributed to 16th and 17th century Europeans’ knowledge and beliefs about the animals. There is as much fiction as fact to be found in these books, but they tell us a lot about the dissemination of ideas in early modern Europe and how wonder and myth began to give way to rigorous scientific analysis.
Allegorical Elephants: Edward Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts. London, 1658 (470 d 19)
With ears like bats’ wings and a trunk like a hose, this depiction of the elephant had been roaming through the printed menageries of Europe for a century by the time it appeared here. The woodcut was first produced for the pioneering zoologist Conrad Gessner for use in his encyclopedia of animal life, the Historia Animalium, 1551-8. Gessner’s work was the first attempt at a comprehensive scientific study of the animal kingdom. In its creation he called on a network of learned colleagues across Europe to send him zoological information as well as pictures of creatures, which he used, alongside copies of popular animal prints, as models for its plentiful woodcut illustrations. In 2012 two albums of the pictures that were sent to Gessner, and his successor Felix Platter, by artists such as Hans Holbein, were rediscovered in the Amsterdam University Library. In 1607 the English clergyman, Edward Topsell, produced this. Although acknowledging a large debt to Gessner on its title page and lifting both the illustrations and large chunks of translated text straight from his work, Topsell’s book was of a very different sort, following an older tradition, with its roots in the medieval bestiary, of using animal lore as spiritual allegory. So Topsell’s account includes references to the elephant’s antipathy to the dragon who attempts to eat its calf, a story that had an established allegory in the machinations of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Topsell also makes reference to the elephant’s monogamy and chastity, mating only infrequently to produce children, as an obvious model for Christian marriage.