The Queen’s Ass

Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
George Stubb’s portrait of the Queen’s zebra. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Some of the first exotic animals to enter France and England in the early 1700s were the chimpanzee and the rhino. They would later be upstaged by the zebra, with one zebra arriving in England in 1762. The zebra was a wedding gift from Sir Thomas Adams and given to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who had married George III a few months earlier in 1761.

Adams had actually brought two zebras — a male and a female — but only the female survived the journey and she arrived in July 1762 aboard the HMS Terpsichore. At the time, the zebra was considered a marvelous animal, rare and strange. Because the zebra was rare, it was initially housed in the tower, but several months later, in September, when a rare elephant arrived for the King, the two animals were housed together.

The Queen’s Ass, Verses by Henry Howard. Courtesy of British Museum.

The idea of an elephant and zebra being housed together seemed irresistible to some people. In fact, it resulted in a humorous penning of the following epigram:

  • “Ye critics so learn’d, whence comes it to pass
  • That the elephant wise should be plac’d by an ass?
  • This matter so strange I’ll unfold in a trice,
  • Some asses of state stand in need of advice
  • To screen them from justice, lest in an ill hour,
  • In the elephant’s stead they be sent to the tower.”[1]

Other people were also interested in the arrival of the zebra. One person interested was Henry Howard. He wrote a humorous bawdy song in which he referred to the queen’s zebra as “the queen’s ass.” Of course, the reference evoked several rejoinders. One was an etching of the zebra with an image of Howard’s head wearing a fool’s cap near the zebra’s hindquarters. It was titled “With a Fool’s Head at the Tail / The Other Side of the Zebray.” There was also “The Real Ass,” an etching of Howard as an ass dabbing at a painting of the three Graces and attended by a monkey.

After the zebra’s arrival, large crowds came to see the striped beast. One visitor wrote:

“The Queen’s she-ass … had all her hours employed from morning to night in satisfying the curiosity of the public. … The crowds that resorted to the Asinine palace were exceeding great. Fame also played its part here, and entertained the public with marvellous accounts of the beautiful, the long ears, and the shining tabby skin of this charming best.”[2]

Another visitor described the zebra as beautiful and stated:

[T]he Zebra is a perfect phenomenon, and may be said with truth, she is the first of all Quadrupedes, her body being finely ornamented with variegated stripes from the point of the nose, to the very extremity of the hoofs.”[3]

Guards supervised visitors, who saw the striped zebra grazing near the Buckingham Palace or in or near St. James Park. For those who could not see the animal live, a painting was also created and displayed in the Mews stables. Later, the famous horse artist George Stubbs also created a painting of the zebra. Stubb’s painting was found in his studio after his death and showed the zebra standing in a shady spot inside a lush woodland.

At the time, admission to see the zebra was free, but the Queen’s guards decided they could make some extra pocket money and began charging a fee to the public. This continued until news broke about their ruse, at which time the public outcry was so strong, it resulted in the guards being admonished for an “unbecoming practice.” However despite the admonishment, the guards did not stop extorting money from those who came to visit the zebra.

Response to the “Queen’s Ass,” “The Real Ass,” Courtesy of British Museum
Response to the “Queen’s Ass,” “The Real Ass,” Courtesy of British Museum

Despite the popularity of the Queen’s Ass and the visiting crowds, the zebra was not the most pleasant animal. In fact, zebras are known to be so quick-tempered and so volatile, even lion’s think twice before accosting them. This resulted in guards taking extreme measures and constantly being vigilant, and it also resulted in guards warning visitors to be careful so that they were not injured or kicked by the zebra. Yet, it was not always the zebra that was a danger to visitors.

In June of 1764, on a Wednesday, a group of ladies and gentlemen were at Buckingham Palace to view the zebra. They watched the zebra and paid no attention to anyone else in the crowd. However, while doing so, a sharper cut away a young lady’s pocket undetected. He got away with her purse amounting to “15 Guineas and a Moidore.”[4]

Over time, the zebra became more common and less interesting to the public. This resulted in fewer visitors, and as it was costly to maintain the zebra, when the opportunity presented itself, Queen Charlotte gladly got rid of it. Despite the zebra being given away or sold off, the zebra’s association with the queen remained strong. In fact, people continued to refer to the zebra as the “Queen’s Ass,” which I’m sure was none too pleasing to the Queen.

A Mr. Christopher “Pinchy” Pinchbeak, a clockmaker and friend of George III’s, ended up acquiring the zebra. For a time, Pinchbeak took the zebra on tour with a menagerie until the zebra died. After the zebra’s death some people thought it ended up at the Leverian Museum but that was a different zebra. The Queen’s Ass was stuffed and toured for a time with a seal lion, panther, and porcupine. It then finally ended up on display at the Blue Boar Inn in York.

References:

  • [1] Hone, William, The Every Day Book, Volume 2, 1866, p. 180.
  • [2] Watkins, John, Memoirs of Her Most Excellent Majesty Sophia-Charlotte, 1819, p. 185. 
  • [3] “To the Printer,” in Stamford Mercury, 25 March 1773, p. 3.
  • [4] “London, June 30,” in Derby Mercury, 29 June 1764, p. 2.

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