The reappearance of these pictures by Jacques-Laurent Agasse (this and the previous lot) provides a valuable addition to his celebrated corpus of exotic animal paintings. The two works encapsulate both the painter’s scientific approach to the natural world and his great sensitivity at rendering it, which together made him one of the greatest animal painters in England, arguably second only to his predecessor George Stubbs.
Born in Geneva to a patrician family of Huguenot origin, Agasse trained in his hometown before moving to Paris in 1786 to complete his artistic education in the studio of Jacques-Louis David, while also studying animal anatomy and dissection. The outbreak of the French Revolution put an end to his French stay and he was back in Geneva in 1789. Having secured the patronage of George Pitt (1751- 1828), later 2nd Baron Rivers of Stratfield Saye, Agasse settled in London in 1800, with the ambition of establishing himself as a prominent sporting painter to affluent aristocrats.
In addition to horse and dog portraiture, in which Agasse specialised, the artist soon developed a keen interest in more exotic animals, then being imported to England for public display and study. Agasse’s fascination may have been sparked by his regular visits, from 1803 onwards, to the menagerie at the ‘Exeter ’Change’ on the Strand in London, and nurtured by the lifelong friendship he developed with the menagerie’s employee, and later owner, Edward Cross. Cross was a well-known importer and dealer in rare animals. He counted among his clients the extravagant, but also genuinely curious, Prince Regent, later King George IV. It was certainly Cross who helped Agasse secure, in 1827, the two royal commissions of The Nubian Giraffe and The White-Tailed Gnus (both in the Royal Collection). In the former, the giraffe, a gift from the Pasha of Egypt to King George IV, is shown newly arrived in England with two Arab keepers and Edward Cross, in attendance as supervisor of the Royal Menagerie at Sandpit Gate, Windsor Great Park. A further testament to his enduring friendship with Cross, Agasse, who only rarely turned to portraiture, painted his friend holding a lion cub (fig. 1; Christie’s, London, 9 July 1993, lot 49).
Built on the site of the former London residence of the Earls of Exeter, from which it derived its name, the Exeter ’Change was erected in 1676 to shelter under its arcades small shops and markets. By 1773, its first floor was used as a menagerie, one of the first commercial attractions of the sort open to the English public. Purchased by Gilbert Pidcock in 1793, it passed on his death in 1810 to Stephen Polito, who renamed it the Royal Menagerie (figs. 2-3). Edward Cross was Polito’s son-in-law and took over the business in 1814.
An embodiment of the inquisitiveness of the scientific age, Cross’s proclaimed mission was ‘to procure rare and exotic animals, from every region of the Globe, for the information and entertainment of my countrymen’. In an early leaflet, the menagerie was praised as ‘the grandest assemblage of living curiosities in the known world’ (fig. 4; K. Koenigsberger, The Novel and the Menagerie: Totality, Englishness, and Empire, 2007, Columbus, Ohio, p. 50). Boasting lions and tigers, but also hyenas, ostriches, cheetahs, kangaroos and even an elephant, Cross’s menagerie became a leading attraction in late Georgian London, visited by royals and commoners alike, and leaving a lasting impression on Lord Byron who wrote a spirited account of his visit in his journal: ‘Two nights ago I saw the tigers sup at Exeter ’Change. Except Veli Pacha’s lion in the Morea, who followed the Arab keeper like a dog, - the fondness of the hyena for her keeper amused me most. Such a conversazione! – There was a ‘hippopotamus’ like Lord Liverpool in the face; and the ‘Ursine Sloth’ hath the very voice and manner of my valet – but the tiger talked too much. The elephant took and gave me my money again – took off my hat – opened a door – trunked a whip – and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler. The handsomest animal on earth is one of the panthers; but the poor antelopes were dead. I should hate to see one here: - the sight of the camel made me pine again for Asia Minor.’ (Lord Byron cited in R.D. Altick, The Shows of London, Cambridge & London, 1978, p. 309).
In 1829, the Exeter ’Change buildings were demolished and Cross and his ever-growing collection of animals were forced to move to a site on which the National Gallery now stands. They remained there for only two years, as in 1831 building work started on the newly founded National Gallery. In the same year, Cross purchased a thirteen acre site in Kennington, south of the River Thames, and founded the Surrey Literary, Scientific and Zoological Institution and Garden, offering the Institution his animals for the sum of ?3,500.
An entry from 1819 in the diary of Agasse’s cousin, Andre Gosse, provides a fascinating description of Agasse at the Royal menagerie: ‘Saturday 19 June … Went to see Agasse … went with him to Mr Cross’ menagerie where Agasse is drawing an orang-outang an enormous elephant, an enormous lion, a lioness and her whelps, a tiger, some tame hyenas’. It is likely that the present lots were also the result of such drawing expeditions.
There are a total of 6 paintings of lions and at least as many paintings of tigers in the artist’s manuscript record book or Livre de raison, making it difficult to identify and date these two pictures securely. However, their remarkable quality, combined with their provenance, places them among Agasse’s more important works, an opinion shared by Rene Loche, the leading authority on the artist. The two pictures, bequeathed to the London Zoological Society by Mrs. F.E. Emerson, a descendant of Edward Cross’s, were likely commissioned by Cross himself. As such, they constitute a further manifestation of the friendship between the keen zoologist and the able painter. A lion and a lioness in a rocky valley is close in composition to a larger painting in a private collection (Christie’s, London, 14 April 1989, lot 43). In the present picture the artist has widened the composition granting more importance to the vast atmospheric landscape occupied by the two animals. By choosing a profile angle, reminiscent of imperial portraiture, Agasse ennobles the animal. The solemnity of the standing lion commands the viewer’s attention. His rigid stance contrasts with the relaxed pose of the reclining lioness beyond. Her intense gaze, however, affords the viewer an unsettling encounter with the feral. Using a similar compositional conceit, the Two Bengal tigers in a savannah landscape also combines both the animal’s elegant profile and frontal stare. In both paintings, Agasse deploys his profound knowledge of anatomy while also succeeding in conveying the animals’ characters, justifying the praise bestowed upon him by his younger contemporary Edwin Landseer: ‘he paints animals like none of us can’.
We are grateful to Rene Loche for confirming the attribution to Agasse on the basis of photographs.