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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo…

By Subhadra Das, on 7 October 2011

Any researcher will tell you that for every ‘Eureka!’ moment, there is a seemingly impossible amount of long, hard, tedious and unrewarding slog.

Baroque Drawing by Mary Adshead

Monkey business. Were these animals drawn from life?

We at UCL Art Museum are no strangers to the joys of the research process, so when Pippa Connolly – a postgraduate student at the Slade School of Fine Art – dropped by the other week on a mission, we were excited, but pragmatic in our approach.

Pippa is researching a particular period in the history of the Slade when, for a select few years between the wars, students were able to observe and draw animals at London Zoo from a viewing studio, specially built for the purpose.

The studio was designed by Berthold Lubetkin who also designed the now iconic penguin enclosure and was a similar structure with simple, pared down lines built in grey concrete. Apparently, Lubetkin abhorred the fake jungle habitats espoused by other zoos; he wanted to have a neutral background where the animals could be viewed to full effect. (We’re not sure whether he ever asked the animals how they felt about this.) The viewing studio was demolished in the early 1960s, a few years before the penguin enclosure became a Grade 1 listed building.

Pippa was interested to see if there were any art works in the collections which reflected this period in the Slade’s history. Given that most of the Slade drawings in the collections are were prize-winners for figure drawing, we thought this was unlikely. But, to our well-tempered delight, we did find a single work – Baroque Drawing by Mary Adshead – which included sketches of a monkey and a peacock which could have been studies from life. Sadly, there was nothing in our documentation to demonstrate that this was even a little bit true. Still, it was a drawing of animals which, among dozens of figure studies of undeniably human subjects, was one more drawing of animals than we had expected to find.

And, although as often happens, there was no definitive discovery, we, as an organisation, have gained an insight into the history of one of our principle donors and have opened up connections between the various UCL collections. This is particularly the case with The Grant Museum and Archaeology collections, who both collected specimens from London Zoo at various points in their history.

You can see the product and process of Pippa’s research, along with those of other Slade artists at the Slade MFA MA Interim Show 2011. You can also follow her on her search for zoo-related answers and images via her blog which includes some great images of her research in action at UCL Art Museum and elsewhere.

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