A Kangaroo in Georgian London

A Kangaroo in Georgian London

Nat Williams tells the stories behind the Library’s treasures

Within the Library’s vast collection are many surprising items; some are objects, or realia in Library cataloguing parlance, and some of the smallest are medals and tokens. Occasions of national significance that the Library records in other collections—in letters, diaries, newspapers, photographs and sound recordings—can be found impressed into the shiny metal surfaces of commemorative medals. The Library holds examples of these that celebrate exploration of land and space, military feats, missionary zeal, pacifism, revolutionary endeavour, horticultural discovery, ship sinking and ship launching, Olympic success and centenaries, sesquicentenaries and bicentenaries. The list of categories is long and intriguing. These medals and tokens preserve moments in time in a format accessible to both the highest in the land and the worker or amateur collector. 

Zoological Exhibition Entry Token Featuring a Kangaroo, Armadilla and Rhinoceros, Created for a London Zoological Exhibition, 1795nla.cat-vn5152705

First witnessed by the British voyagers Cook and Banks at Endeavour River in 1770, kangaroos had intrigued Europeans since their first description, and early images of them were distorted and sometimes whimsical. George Stubbs’ famous depiction of the Kongouro from New Holland was commissioned by Banks and formed the model from which many images were derived. Prominently exhibited in 1773, the painting engraved itself into British consciousness. Kangaroos were exported to Europe following the arrival of the First Fleet, and a fairly recent acquisition made by the Library, Thomas Hall’s ‘Kanguroo’ token from 1795, reflects the unlikely presence of the kangaroo in the Georgian London streetscape, only seven years after settlement here.  

Thomas Hall, as his token records, could be found at ‘Citty Road near Finsbury Square London’. On one side, Hall modestly proclaimed himself, ‘The first artist in Europe for preserving birds beasts &’. On the reverse, he features naïvely crafted images of ‘The Kanguroo’, ‘The Armadillo’ and ‘The Rhinoceros’. For some reason, perhaps to create an altogether more jaunty image of the curious macropod, Hall has the kangaroo’s tail standing upright, with the kangaroo almost appearing surprised to see it.

Travelling Menagerie, c.1800, oil on canvas, David Roche Foundation Collection

Hall owned a menagerie featuring stuffed birds and animals and, as numismatist extraordinaire Peter Lane notes, he also had ‘live curiosities’, including, perhaps, a kangaroo. Did he depict a taxidermied kangaroo with a manky tail, or was Roger Dixon, the die maker, at fault? Hall toured his menagerie around England in a circus-like tent and sideshow cages. Intriguingly, some years ago in the remarkable David Roche Foundation collection in Adelaide, I saw a painting that might connect these two memorable objects across time and space.

The rare oil painting of a travelling menagerie depicts exotic animals caged in wheeled carts and a keeper, stick in hand, lecturing to a paying audience. Lane observed that Hall used a ‘grotesque dwarf huckster’ to spruik the show. Could the person at the mouth of the tent hailing onlookers in the painting be Hall’s sidekick? Perhaps most compelling is the fact that in the dark right-hand corner of the painting, past the big cats and monkeys, are two, lonely kangaroos in another cage. Could this then be an image of Hall’s menagerie somewhere in the counties? It is tempting to link the Library’s ‘Kanguroo’ token with this remarkable oil painting.   

Travelling Menagerie (detail), c.1800, oil on canvas, David Roche Foundation Collection

Given the venerable presence of the kangaroo on our coat of arms today, it is interesting to note that the first Australian kangaroo tokens didn’t emerge until the 1850s, more than half a century after Hall’s London ‘Kanguroo’ appeared.   

Nat Williams is the Library's Treasures Curator. The Treasures Curator is supported by Catalyst—Australian Arts and Culture Fund.