Autodidactic Rabbit Trails: Not Your Grandmother's Porcelain Figurine - Tiger Mauling and Art Weirdness

Autodidactic Rabbit Trails: In which I meander around the net picking up all sorts of tidbits and share them, and we all pretend this is intensely educational. Whereas a lot is gleefully "ew gross" or "whoa, really?!" depending on your preference for weirdness. Strange history - it's still history! Note, I do quote wikipedia frequently, but be aware they're not to be entirely relied upon for all facts. (Do correct me where needed.)


In this episode: pottery figures of tiger mauling and murder, the story of Lt. Hugh Munro and the tiger, a musical tiger mauling a human, and a freaky Greek myth about breast feeding I'd somehow missed in classics studies.


If your grandmother (or grandfather, or other relative) has this kind of china figurine I REALLY want photos and stories, because seriously, share that stuff. Specifically Staffordshire pottery figurines showing pop cultural topics like boxing, bull baiting and mermaids - and deeper strangeness like the scandal of eloping to Scotland, the 1823 Marriage Act, being attacked by a tiger, and a historic murder or two.


I'm now about to link to Collectors Weekly, which I should possibly warn you is indeed a rabbit trail you can follow for many an hour, if you simply like looking at collections.


I was going to post an image from the article (to lure you in) but 1) copyright, so you really should visit the link below (even if not to read, just to scroll through all the images) and 2) I can NOT choose just one, too much delightful weirdness on display. Here's brief quote and link before I go into more detail:


Murder and Mayhem in Miniature: The Lurid Side of Staffordshire Figurines
Hunter Oatman-Stanford, Collectors Weekly, August 22nd, 2013


"...The subjects that graced Staffordshire pottery more than 200 years ago weren’t for the fainthearted: Imagine giving grandma a figurine that mocked discriminatory marriage laws or portrayed a gruesome series of animal attacks. Welcome to the world of Staffordshire miniatures.

Long before people had Us Weekly or 49ers t-shirts, they bought Staffordshire figurines to celebrate pop culture. During the late 1700s, potteries in the Staffordshire region of England created these figures to commemorate everything from classical artwork to sport heroes, from political movements to tabloid headlines."

The rest of the article is an interview with author Myrna Schkolne who's written several volumes of books on Staffordshire figures. (Her website, and blog, with more photos! I've not yet gotten around to reading more there, I have the feeling I'll be losing more time there, happily reading.) Some excerpts (in which I pick the bits that I'm interested in, as usual):


"...After I bought my first figure, I got a book on Staffordshire, and on the cover of the book, there was a couple of dandies, a man and woman arm in arm in the dress of the period. In that time, men were the focus of the fashion world. Masculine attire has changed quite a lot: Men wore corsets, cinched their waists. You had to be very trim. They carried little handbags because pockets might spoil the fit of their clothing. So this really spiffy couple was on the cover of this book, and I just knew I wanted one. That helped me focus, and funnily enough, many years later, I actually got the piece from the cover of the book.

...In 1793, a French revolutionary leader by the name of Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by a young woman named Charlotte Corday. Around that time, a Staffordshire figure was made showing the murder. That figure is probably the earliest one depicting a current event, a real-world disaster.

...Well, my favorite is a figure showing a tiger or tigress mauling a woman and her baby. That sounds so wrong. The tigress is holding the baby in her mouth and the woman beneath her paws. The figure is titled “Menagerie.” A Staffordshire menagerie is a well-known genre, but this was clearly not a normal menagerie object. The thing drove me nuts. I couldn’t work out the whys and the wherefores. [See image at top.]

Then one night at about 1:00 a.m., I came across an old broadside that led me to the Colindale newspaper archive in the U.K. A small paragraph in the Northumberland Herald for February of 1834 describes how Wombwell’s Menagerie had stopped in a town overnight, and during the night, a tigress and a lion had escaped, and they had killed a woman with a child in her arms. Usually, any sort of menagerie mishap is very well publicized, but I think in this case the owner of the menagerie, George Wombwell, was very quick to open his wallet because if word got about, people wouldn’t have wanted his menagerie in town.


...Then there’s the Red Barn Murder in 1827, which is one of my favorite stories of all time. That was the biggest murder story of its era—O.J. Simpson, move over. The Red Barn has been in the press even in recent years, when one of the murderers’ descendants claimed his skeleton from the World Royal College of Surgeons where it’s been ever since. It was also reenacted in the 20th century for a movie, an old black-and-white movie starring Tod Slaughter.  


The Red Barn Murder is the story of Maria Marten, a young girl of a rather fallen reputation, who was killed by her boyfriend, William Corder. Corder was a local farmer’s son, and Maria was planning to run off with him and get married. She had already borne a child to him, in fact, I think she’d already given birth to a couple of illegitimate children by different men. They planned to meet at the door of a red barn on his farm, and after that night, Maria was never seen again.

...Relatively few Staffordshire figures of the Red Barn seem to have been made, and they look just like the actual red barn did then. Although the illustrations at the time were crude woodcuts, you can still tell what the barn looked like. I also tracked down images of William Corder and Maria Marten that match what the pottery figures look like."


Linkfest: Red Barn movie at Internet Archive (1935), which was linked in the text of the article. Here's the wikipedia page for the film, full title: Maria Marten or The Murder in the Red Barn. If this is the first you've heard of the Red Barn, check out its wikipedia page. It's been a fascination for many. (Schkolne discusses it for a few more paragraphs than I quoted here, including theories of who was the murderer.) I'll just pass on one book I've not read yet; it's one of several famous murders in A Very British Murder: The Story of a National Obsession, by Lucy Worsley. (Check out youtube for the documentary of the same name, if you can find it - fun true crime and pop culture history.)


Random trivia: George Wombwells' tomb in Highgate Cemetery is famous for having a large lion on it. See his wikipedia page for a photo.


I think from that you get a very clear idea of why I found Schkolne's discussion of her collection fascinating. But there were multiple figures I had questions about and wanted more information. ...I did limit myself to looking up just two because I do (in theory) have other things I should be doing.


The Death of Lt. Hugh Munro

One of the figures shows a soldier being mauled by a tiger, and captioned Death of Lt. Hugh Munro. He was apparently out hunting and well, was attacked and killed because, giant predator, etc. Here's the page at the V&A museum website for this particular figure, with multiple images. (A great detail from the description: "Monro reclines stiffly at the feet of the tiger, apparently blissfully unaware of his fate - an effect that was probably the result of the sculptor having simply reused the model or moulds for a standing military figure without adapting in any way it for its new context.") Sadly Lt. Hugh (as I decided to call him) does not have his own wikipedia page - though his father does. However it's where he does show up in wikipedia that took me into more weirdness.


Tipu's Tiger:

"Tipu's Tiger or Tippoo's Tiger is an 18th-century automaton or mechanical toy created for Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in India. The carved and painted wood casing represents a tiger savaging a near life-size European man. Mechanisms inside the tiger and man's bodies make one hand of the man move, emit a wailing sound from his mouth and grunts from the tiger. In addition a flap on the side of the tiger folds down to reveal the keyboard of a small pipe organ with 18 notes.


The tiger was created for Tipu and makes use of his personal emblem of the tiger and expresses his hatred of his enemy, the British of the East India Company.


...The tiger formed part of a specific group of large caricature images commissioned by Tipu showing European, often specifically British, figures being attacked by tigers or elephants, or being executed, tortured and humiliated and attacked in other ways. Many of these were painted by Tipu's orders on the external walls of houses in the main streets of Tipu's capital, Seringapatam. Tipu was in "close co-operation" with the French, who were at war with Britain and still had a presence in South India, and some of the French craftsmen who visited Tipu's court probably contributed to the internal works of the tiger."


And there is an image of this tiger at that wikipedia link - the piece now lives in the V&A Museum. Here's a video of the tiger making noise - it growls and the man screams - and sound not lifelike or scary in the slightest, worry not. Here is a video of the tiger being played as an organ (that's part 2, and you can't not laugh when they all look at you/the camera at the end of it), and another video of tiger being played (part 1, if you're into ordering things, watch first!). You should look at both to get a better idea of the size of the object, which is unclear from just the wikipedia photos.


The wikipedia page is actually really long and through - so I'm thinking there are quite a few folk out there that also find this fascinating. Oh and don't miss the Derivative Works section where you can see an image titled Rabbit eating astronaut.


Anyway, back to poor Lt. Hugh, and how he figures in this (again, from the wiki):


"The design may have been inspired by the death in 1792 of Hugh Munro, son of General Sir Hector Munro, who had commanded a division during Sir Eyre Coote's victory at the Battle of Porto Novo (Parangipettai) in 1781 when Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan's father, was defeated with a loss of 10,000 men during the Second Anglo-Mysore War. Hugh Munro, a civilian visiting India, was attacked and killed by a tiger on 22 December 1792 while hunting with several companions on Saugor Island in the Bay of Bengal (still one of the last refuges of the Bengal Tiger)."


Now that other figurine - because I limited myself to just two to look up - back in the Collectors Weekly article it's captioned


"Eventually, artists incorporated more risque imagery, as seen with the depiction of breastfeeding in the Greek myth of Cimon and Pero."


Which made me blink, because (English prof) dad brought me up on Greek myths as bedtime stories - which led me to read all the mythology books he had on hand - so how had I not heard this one? (Dad could tell the Minotaur story so's to give nightmares - what with the bellowing heard in the distance and the red eyes Theseus could see in the darkness coming toward him, and the heavy breathing of the monster getting closer and closer...) And then I read this and thought, ah right, that's why this doesn't come up much. Also it's Roman, and they always had a slightly different spin in their stories. Wikipedia tucks it under the title Roman Charity:


"Roman Charity (Latin Caritas romana; Italian Carità Romana) is the exemplary story of a woman, Pero, who secretly breastfeeds her father, Cimon, after he is incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. She is found out by a jailer, but her act of selflessness impresses officials and wins her father's release.


The story is recorded in Nine Books of Memorable Acts and Sayings of the Ancient Romans (De Factis Dictisque Memorabilibus Libri IX) by the ancient Roman historian Valerius Maximus, and was presented as a great act of pietas (i.e., filial piety) and Roman honour. A painting in the Temple of Pietas depicted the scene. Among Romans, the theme had mythological echoes in Juno's breastfeeding of the adult Hercules, an Etruscan myth."


And then multiple artists latched onto the idea (er, I honestly wrote that without thinking, sorry) and you can see the results on that page in the gallery. Meanwhile up in the top search results for Cimon and Pero is this entry, A Tale to Two F'ed Up Dads (the other is Saturn/Cronus), on the website WTF Art History, which I'm linking because, yeah, subject fits title! Also, damn, such a freaky image to fixate on. And I'm not thinking about the Romans, I'm wondering about the artists of 1500-1700 who thought this such a nifty subject that they just had to paint their own version. (I got all quantitative here and wondered if anyone had charted the fad for painting this subject, but then I remembered the subject and decided I didn't really want to google more.)


I could go on here into a list of Greek Myths to Make You Say Ew, but I'll save that for another time. Because I think the Cimon and Pero one was enough for today. Though it does remind me that so many teachers really don't tantalize students enough with the line "I would certainly love to teach you more about X, but of course there are rude bits that we couldn't discuss." I would hope every student had a teacher do this with Chaucer (it's how my dad's father got him to read it - warning about the parts he shouldn't mention in school). Seriously, there is nothing like this kind of hint to get teens to at least peek into something that contains historical dirty jokes or sexual weirdness. I'm still flummoxed at how some of my high school classmates were uninterested in Greek myths when we were studying them - because 90% of the stories were about sex, no matter how nicely the author was trying to translate it. (Of course it helped that at home we had all the literal translations, in case I had any questions about what was happening.)


Thus ends today's meandering.

And no, I had NO idea that this was where I'd end up. Yeek.