Curious Beasts

John Higgins visits the Ulster Museum as an unusual collection from the British Museum packs up for Hull

The fun starts with Curious Beasts: Animal Prints from the British Museum even before you reach the Ulster Museum gallery, as evidenced by the rabbit fur fish in the foyer, an old huckster’s contrivance from the 1930s in a little glass case.

In the gallery space we’re practically devoured by Peter van der Heyden’s 1577 etching 'The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish', an essay in old Dutch realist surrealism. The giant boggled-eyed fish is as surprised as we are as it spews great shoals of fish from its mouth and from a hole rent in its side by a man in a suit of armour wielding a table knife, complete with serrated edge, which is the size of a surfboard.

The smaller fish, even as they slide from the larger fish’s guts, disgorge smaller fish of their own. It’s a disgusting and absurd but beautifully rendered landscape, each monstrosity made feasible by the artist’s technical skill. 'The World Turned Upside Down' (1790 etching, Anon., meanwhile, gives us a wonderful window into the fabulously creaky gag telling of the 16th century. (Honestly, you wouldn’t open with them.)


The premise of this exhibition – which has proved incredibly popular since opening in February, though I'm only managing to see it now as it packs up to relocate to Hull, the second UK City of Culture after Derry~Londonderry's inaugural stint – is simply to display the opposite of things as we know them to be.

It's bizarro world, basically. So we see 'The Wife Acts the Soldier and the Husband Spines (sic) and Nurses the Child'. Imagine that! And where the exhibition becomes really interesting is where it shows the extraordinary impact of animals upon the daily lives of ordinary people.

Almost all of these inversions have to do with animals. They range from the fairly innocuous ('The Horse Rubbing Down the Groom') to the outright grotesque ('A rabitt (sic) Roasts a Man and a Cock Bastes Him' – adding, as a tasteless aside 'Will you have a sup?').

George Cruikshank’s brand of scatological political satire is presented as a hand-coloured etching: 'The Prince of Whales or the Fisherman at Anchor' (1812). The Prince, George IV, famously bloated and dissolute, is presented as a literal whale, spewing forth twin mouthfuls.

One a 'golden dew of flavour', the other being a murky brine called 'the liquor of oblivion', drenching his subjects in both. Pleasingly, one of the disfavoured bears a striking resemblance to Boris Johnson and is probably a relative.

Jacques Jean Pasquier’s gorgeous retelling of Aesop’s fable 'The Bear and the Gardener' (etching and engraving. C1756.) tells the story of a bear, beautifully delineated with its long, lean, feline torso, legs curled neatly beneath it, who attempts to help his friend the gardener, who is being bothered by a fly, by dropping a boulder on it.

Unfortunately for the gardener, the fly is currently resting on his head. The action is caught moments before the tragedy – the gardener snoozing unawares beneath a twisting tree, the bloated fly egging on the foolish but loyal bear.

Albrecht Dürer's 'Adam and Eve' (engraving. 1504), is extraordinary in its detail and sophistication. Every one of the delicate curls in Adam’s prelapsarian bubble-perm is delineated (as are the individual veins on his fig leaf).

The figures are surrounded by all manner of flora and fauna and, this being Eden before the fall, the cat pays no mind to the mouse whatsoever, though there is an obvious presentiment of what is to come – a goat teeters on the brink of the abyss even as the serpent hands Eve a piece of fruit to be getting on with.

Rembrandt’s 'The Hog' (etching and drypoint. 1643) is one of the more harrowing images presented, given man’s famously destructive relationship to animals and particularly for its extraordinary restraint and delicacy.

A large, hairy pig lies trussed and spent on the floor, its massive bulk solid if sketchily rendered, the mouth slack, the eyes resigned. It is assailed by ghostly human figures: a sullen child glares at it. Another, with the dissipated monkey face of a munchkin, plays with an inflated pig’s bladder, traditional weapon of the fool. In the background stands a man, the butcher, the ghost of an axe in his hands.

'A Pig Organ' (etching. Anon. 1800 – 1804) presents humanity’s inhumanity to non-humans in 'comic' fashion: presenting, for your delight and delectation, ladies and gentlemen, an organ comprised of squealing pigs of varying sizes, their tails pulled to emit squeaks by a peri-wigged keyboardist in full Keith Emerson pomp.

It could almost be funny (it’s nicely drawn) had this and other similar contraptions not actually existed and been exhibited to paying customers. (Knowledge gleaned from the jewel in the crown of children’s television, Horrible Histories.)

There are three Goya prints in the exhibition, but for me the pick of them is the enigmatically titled 'Fool’s Folly' (also known as, less enigmatically, 'Lluvia de Toros' – Raining Bulls). Four bulls appear magically against the inky blackness of night, a knot of panic and flailing, useless power.

These animals were clearly sketched from the bullring, with their tumbling bodies and rolling eyes, but are depicted as suddenly loosed from the earth, and helpless, unable to push back against the nothingness, their furious strength spent.

It is a bitter, melancholy image of waning strength, a literal dying of the light as the panicked animals are eaten up by the darkness. It becomes apparent that sometimes animals are not just animals. They are our symbols, the mirror of the most curious creature of all.

Curious Beasts opens in Ferens Art Gallery, Hull (UK City of Culture 2017) on June 7. Visit the Ulster Museum website for information on current and forthcoming exhibitions.