Sunday, 26 October 2014

Here’s a Pretty How-De-Do: W.S. Gilbert (but not Sullivan) and his Menagerie, with Lemurs to the Fore

I often think it's comical – Fal, lal, la! 
How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la! 
That every boy and every gal 
That’s born into the world alive 
Is either a little Liberal 
Or else a little Conservative! 

Fal, lal, la!

..and you can say exactly the same about the dichotomy of opinions of Gilbert and Sullivan as of the words W.S. Gilbert put into the mouth of Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards on duty outside the Palace of Westminster and as ‘intellectual chap’ thinking of things ‘that would astonish you’ about the political parties of Victorian Britain. So, on the one hand, we have Sir Peter Medawar, brilliant essayist who’s views I usually agreed with, hating Gilbert and Sullivan, while, on the other, there is Stephen Jay Gould, brilliant essayist who’s views I often disagreed with, loving G&S; the latter indeed including the essay The True Embodiment of Everything That's Excellent in his 2002 book, I Have Landed.

So, in my now topsy-turvy world and firmly in the Gould camp on this one, I only recently discovered W.S. Gilbert’s zoological interests. I became aware of his knowledge of evolution when I nearly appeared in a school production of The Mikado (Asian flu sadly prevented the discovery of another Laurence Olivier). Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else (every town still has one) averred: I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable. I can’t help it. I was born sneering. It is worth noting that Gilbert was a pupil of Thomas Henry Huxley’s father.

Nancy McIntosh
The chronicler of Gilbert’s menagerie was Nancy McIntosh, his sadly unsuccessful American singing protégé, who lived with Gilbert and his wife as their ‘adopted daughter’, who continued to live with his widow and who inherited Gilbert’s fortune. For those of a suspicious disposition there were rumours of what exactly McIntosh’s relationship with Gilbert, notably flirtatious and charming with young women while irascible with men. However, the biographers come to the view that there was nothing in ‘it’ and that Nancy was utterly devoted to the Gilberts as an ‘adopted daughter’.


Nancy McIntosh wrote an article which I have not seen for Country Life on the menagerie and another which can be found online for The Strand Magazine.

Gilbert and his wife brought two monkeys back from India and installed them at Grim’s Dyke, the house he bought near Harrow in 1890. A monkey house was constructed as others were acquired and other mammals (a lynx, for example) and birds, including parrots, joined the farm animals in the house and estate. His most notable animals were his Ring-tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta) which mated and bred. I presume they were obtained from one of the London animal dealers with their worldwide connections and collectors. The lemurs had the run of the house and grounds for most of the time and McIntosh describes their life. They bred to produce the first of the species to be conceived and delivered in Britain. The young lemur, ‘Paul’, was soon a house favourite:

He had a regular programme for his days, beginning with waking Sir William, in whose room he slept, at about half-past seven, wishing to play games. He dearly loved boxing, sitting up and striking out most bravely. After superintending Sir William’s toilet, during the whole of which he sat on either his head or shoulder, he rode down to the dining-room and breakfasted. After eating his banana he nearly always went to Lady Gilbert to be fed with brown bread which he like in the morning.

But things did not always go smoothly. Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame, and his wife looked after the first of Gilbert’s lemurs at their house while the Gilberts were abroad. It did not make itself popular. It sat on a chandelier and defecated profusely into a bowl of fruit. The Stokers learnt quickly that useful adage—never look after other people’s animals.

There is a Blogger site entitled Gilbert’s Lemurs. It appeared in 2009 with just two entries.

Gilbert died on 29 May 1911 in the lake at Grim’s Dyke of a heart attack while rescuing a schoolgirl who had got into difficulty while waiting for him to give her a swimming lesson. Lady Gilbert had the lake partly drained after this tragedy. In the lake are Great-crested Newts, Triturus cristatus. Grim’s Dyke is now a hotel surrounded by the gardens created by Lady Gilbert. I have not been able to find whether any of the buildings constructed for the menagerie remain.


Fal, lal, la

WSG. A portrait taken from around the time
he had the menagerie at Grim's Dyke