Before the establishment of zoological gardens in the early nineteenth century, people living outside of London with its Tower Menagerie were unlikely to have the opportunity of seeing large exotic animals unless the proprietor of a travelling menagerie rolled into town. George Wombwell (1777-1850) was the greatest of them all. Around 1810 he began touring the seasonal fairs, where it was easy to gather a crowd. Eventually he had three units, each with its brightly painted wagons and brass bands, covering the circuit.
Cotsen recently acquired a late eighteenth-century drawing by Lady Diana Beauclerk that documents the visit of a travelling menagerie to an unspecified location in the English countryside. Perhaps the animal show of Gilbert Pidcock, which was on the road in the late 1700s, is depicted here, although there is no way of being sure because the wagon has no identifying marks. The showman gestures with his staff towards the enormous lion, whose head seems to be lowered, possibly exhausted after a long bumpy ride on bad roads. Wonder and awe, not fear, animate the faces in the little crowd standing a safe distance from the creature’s cage on wheels. At least two little ones are being held up so they won’t miss seeing the noble beast.
The drawing is signed “D.B.” in the lower left hand corner and “D:B:” below the border in the middle. Those initials belong to the one the most celebrated amateur woman artists of the period: Lady Diana Beauclerk (1734-1808), daughter of the Honorable Elizabeth Trevor and Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough. She also has the distinction of being the first of the celebrated Di Spencers.
A number of her drawings survive and perhaps this one of the travelling menagerie is related to others she did on popular entertainments: one of a showman with dancing bears, and another of street musicians. While there is no reason to think Lady Di drew any of them for the delight of her children or grandchildren (nor is there any evidence they were intended as illustrations for a book, much less a children’s book), the drawings open a window on the experiences of children in the late Georgian period.
Who was the artist of these charming drawings? Lady Diana would have been notorious even if she had not been part of the fast set of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Beauclerk has probably been the inspiration for many characters in Regency romances… Dr. Johnson dismissed Lady Di as a “whore” but Edmund Burke was more forgiving on account of her two dreadful marriages, the first to the dissolute womanizer Frederick St. John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, who succeeded in divorcing her for adultery on the third try in 1768. Diana may not have felt the need for absolute discretion when her husband was rarely home at night.
Two days after the divorce was final, she married her long-time lover Topham Beauclerk. He should have been an improvement over Bolingbroke, as the great-grandson of Charles II, a friend of Horace Walpole and Dr. Johnson, a wit, and notable book collector. But his personal hygiene was as appalling as his temper and Lady Di was frequently the victim of his rages. Even his friends said Topham was so filthy that it was possible to catch lice from his wig.
After Topham’s death in 1780s, Lady Di’s life must have improved dramatically, now that she was the mistress of a pleasant small house, a regular income, and peace to devote to a range of artistic pursuits. Probably her best known works are the designs she executed for Josiah Wedgewood, which were used on plaques, jugs, and other ceramic pieces.