The magical relationship between humans and animals, from Disney to David Attenborough, are celebrated in a new exhibition by Wiltshire artist Joanna May.
The Iconic Animals of London Zoo will be opened at The Savoy hotel in London on Saturday (November 24) by TV wildlife presenter Michaela Strachan.
Animals residing at ZSL London Zoo, beloved to the UK public in their lifetimes, became immortalised in some of the nation’s – and indeed the world’s – favourite stories, such as Jumbo the elephant, who became Disney’s Dumbo, and Winnipeg the bear who became A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.
And Joanna, who had a gallery in Marlborough for eleven years and now lives and works at her gallery home in Keevil, has had exclusive permission from Disney to incorporate the images of Dumbo and Winnie-the-Pooh in this work.
Television personality, Michaela Strachan, presenter of BBC1’s 2012 Autumnwatch and 2013 Winterwatch, will be introducing the paintings and talking about ZSL London Zoo’s conservation and Tiger SOS campaign.
Joanna herself appeared on Springwatch 2006, sketching hares for her now renowned Zodiac Hare series.
Celebrating David Attenborough’s sixty years in wildlife television is the painting Zoo Quest, named after the wildlife presenter’s first major BBC TV series.
In the first episode of the 1956 series, Attenborough brought Charlie the Orangutan from Borneo to live at London Zoo to start a breeding programme.
The painting shows the inextricable link between the fame of both David Attenborough and the animals he filmed.
The Queen features in two paintings: Majesty the Lion and The Queen and the Penguins. Majesty demonstrates the royal iconography of the lion and also the royal endorsement of London Zoo from Queen Victoria to the present Queen. The backdrop of the Union flag taps into national pride after the Jubilee and Olympics.
The Queen and the Penguins shows a carefree Princess Elizabeth enjoying a visit with the king penguins, her destiny and future duty in the shape of her father, George VI, reflected in the enclosure’s water as well as in the name of the animals themselves.
Talking about her inspiration for the project, Joanna said: “I have thought about painting the animals of London Zoo for at least 15 years from when I was a children’s wildlife book illustrator in the 1990’s.
“I was inspired by a story of someone who visited the Zoo when he was a boy. He kept an image in his mind close to his heart of the size of his tiny little hand next to a gorilla’s.
“The gorilla reached out towards him and they touched through the meshing and it stayed with him to this day as a truly magical experience. It made me think about the amazing animals that must have been kept there over the years since Victorian times and how they must have touched the hearts of children and adults alike.”
This ape was Guy the gorilla who arrived at London Zoo on Guy Fawkes Night, 1947, hence the name. He became one of the Zoo’s most loved animals.
Joanna’s collectable style is inspired both by wild animals and by the bold colours of contemporary interior design. The feature colour in Zoo Quest is the orangutan’s distinct fur; the king penguins in The Queen and the Penguins pick up the Queen’s favourite colour, vibrant yellow, as well as the art deco style in fashion at the time.
Joanna has a long-standing love of zebras, which have been the subjects of her best selling paintings: “I never get bored of the zebra stripes natural pattern and graphic effect,” she says.
Paintings of pandas Ching Ching and Chia Chia, gifted to the UK from China in 1974, are pink bubblegum cartoon bears grown up.
But the story of zoo animals are not straight forward. There are shadows of ownership and exploitation for animals in captivity.
This can be seen particularly in Jumbo, history’s most famous elephant. A super star of London Zoo from 1865 to 1882, he was sold to Barnum & Bailey American Circus because the Zoo secretly could not afford to continually repair his cage after nightly ‘musk’ rages.
A huge public campaign to keep him ensued, but to no avail. Thousands of people saw Jumbo off on his voyage to America.
Joanna’s painting – Jumbo decorated with union flag, stars and stripes, Disney’s Dumbo and circus, jumbo jets and jumbo hotdog iconography – demonstrates the elephant’s popularity across two continents but also that, ultimately, this naturally wild animal lived a life as both private and public property.
The Iconic Animals of London Zoo exhibits at The Savoy, London on Saturday 24 November, 11am to 11pm. For more information, visit www.joannamay.com