Look at the birdie

A blue jay, in William Hayes's 1794 book Portraits of Rare and Curious Birds. ©NTPL/John Hammond

We recently purchased an illustrated book on birds, published by William Hayes in 1794. The book shows the rare and exotic birds that were kept in the menagerie at Osterley Park in the late eighteenth century. The acquisition was generously supported by the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries.

A Child armorial eagle perches on a balustrade on the east front of Osterley. The menagerie was situated over to the left beyond the pond. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

At this time Robert Child, who had inherited Osterley Park in 1763 from his brother Francis, together with the Child banking fortune, was actively developing the garden. Its principal attraction was the menagerie, a wooded and walled area on the north-eastern side of the park.

A bald eagle, from the Hayes book. ©NTPL/John Hammond

A contemporary visitor described the menagerie as the ‘prettiest place [she] ever saw, ‘tis an absolute retreat, & filld with all sorts of curious and scarce Birds and Fowles, among the rest 2 numidian cranes that follow like Dogs, and a pair of Chinese teale that have only been in England before upon the India paper…’.

A Chinese duck, from the Hayes book. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

William Hayes, an ingenious local artist, made drawings of the most unusual specimens. These were hung in the library at Upton House, Warwickshire, another Child property, where there was also a collection of stuffed birds.

A duck shown in a section of 'India paper' (Chinese wallpaper) at Belton House, Lincolnshire. ©NTPL/Martin Trelawny

Hayes, having fallen on hard times, employed some of his 21 children to help him engrave and colour the plates for Portraits of Rare and Curious Birds, which he published in 1794. Special coloured proofs were made for Robert Child’s widow Sarah, then Lady Ducie, which she hung in one of the rooms of the Menagerie House at Osterley.

The Garden House at Osterley, built by Robert Adam in 1780. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

After Lady Ducie’s death the menagerie was not kept up on the same scale, but in 1802 it was still noteworthy and attractive enough for members of the Academy Club, including John Soane, Joseph Nollekens, Johann Zoffany, Benjamin West and other artists and architects to go there for a summer outing.

The Library at Osterley, designed by Robert Adam in 1766.

Eventually, however, the menagerie disappeared. The spectacular contents of the library at Osterley were sold in 1885, raising £13,000 which enabled the family to repair and modernise the house. Osterley was given to the National Trust in 1949 (other posts about it can be found here).

A hoopoe, from the Hayes book. ©NTPL/John Hammond

During the last few years National Trust curators have made a number of purchases of individual books from the lost library, which will help to explain what it contained and how it was used.

A nineteenth-century Meissen vase with various birds attached, including a hoopoe, at Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, illustrating the cachet of such decorative birds. ©NTPL/J. Whitaker

The presence of the Hayes book at Osterley demonstrates the integrated nature of country house collections. Libraries often related to the other collections in the house, to its architecture and to the garden and the wider estate – something also seen in a recent post about the library at Penrhyn Castle.

8 Responses to “Look at the birdie”

  1. columnist Says:

    It is amusing that the Chinoiserie wallpaper at Belton should be on “India paper”, but I’ve looked up why. The Chinese duck from the Hayes book, depicted above that is I think more commonly called “the Mandarin duck”. I’ve always enjoyed watching them comport themselves. They are very beautiful and the Chinese believe they are symbolic of wedded bliss and fidelity because of their natural behaviour.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much for that contribution. Yes the word ‘India’ used to be attached to all sorts of products from East Asia, because people’s conception of the separate Asian countries was very hazy, and because it was the East India Company which imported these goods.

    Similarly, the word ‘Japan’ was often used to indicate lacquer regardles of whether it came from Japan, from China, or from another East Asian country, or indeed was an English imitation.

  3. Janet Says:

    Utterly beautiful! I wish people kept such menageries these days. Sometimes I think we have lost our sense of wonder. . .

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    There is a rather magnificent aviary at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire where, in true Rothschild style, they have not just kept rare birds but bred them as well: http://www.waddesdon.org.uk/aviary/index.html

  5. Susan Holloway Scott Says:

    Blue jays as exotic birds! Here in Pennsylvania, USA, they’re everywhere – large, loud, aggressive birds, though quite beautiful. Very amusing to think that my little yard has something in common with Osterley Park.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Well, exactly: exoticism is a very relative thing. There is a Japanese artist called Takumamsa Ono who travels around the UK making delightful watercolours of National Trust historic houses and parks, which obviously appear very exotic to him, as he shows them as fairytale settings 🙂

  7. style court Says:

    Janet’s comment about a sense of wonder is thought provoking.

    Emile, your blog title has proven to be spot on. Everyday it’s another treasure. The greens in the paper are splendid!

    In this century, when we have so much access, it’s hard to imagine how mysterious Asia once was to Europeans — particularly it’s hard to grasp why India and China were often confused. And add to that using one country as a verb: ‘Japanned’ cabinets and boxes from China or England 🙂

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, you are being too kind: I am simply channeling the work of others.

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