It’s in lots of the books about early Ming China, the picture of a giraffe presented to the Yongle emperor on 20 September 1414 by Saif al-Din Hamzah Shah, Sultan of Bengal. One or other of the surviving versions of the image of this marvel (and there were surely once lots more of them) was always a dead cert for inclusion in the exhibition Ming: 50 Years that Changed China, shown at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015, exactly six hundred years later. My co-curator (Jessica Harrison-Hall and I) discussed and argued our original enormous want-list down to something more feasible in terms of space and budget over several years, but the inclusion of the giraffe painting was never in doubt. We even fantasized at one point about installing a full-scale stuffed giraffe in the BM forecourt; there was after all just such a zoological rarity in the nineteenth-century British Museum, before the naturalia and artificialia were split between two different institutions, as the category of Natural History claimed its own “scientific” space in South Kensington. This didn’t happen, but you were able to buy a cuddly giraffe toy in the exhibition shop. I didn’t look at the label, but it’s pretty much a certainty that, along with most of the Ming tea towels, Ming USB sticks, Ming phone covers, Ming fridge magnets, Ming T-shirts, Ming umbrellas, Ming coffee mugs and Ming tin plates (if not the Ming stem ginger biscuits), the cuddly giraffes were made in China. Today so much stuff moves around the world in giant ships that the idea of a marvel, a thing not seen before, becomes hard to capture.
The giraffe painting was a big hit with the exhibition audience, and I often stopped in front of it when doing tours and introductions. Someone said to me that they knew about giraffes and that the artist had definitely seen one, that the animal’s physiology was right (not like Albrecht Dürer’s rhino), but its markings were obviously wrong, substituting regular chevrons for the lion-confusing blotches a real giraffe would have. I said I thought the attempt was being made to give it scales, to match the description in the Confucian classics of the marvellous beast called the qilin, token of the rule of a paragon emperor. It must have been a brief marvel. No record survives of this, but my guess is the poor creature would in reality have suffered mightily in Beijing’s frigid winter climate, which probably was enough to carry it off exactly six hundred years before the exhibition’s closure. The arrival of a qilin is worthy of note, but its passing goes unremarked.
The painting commemorates an act of gift giving, and I was suddenly moved to check out the name “John T. Dorrance”, who himself gave this work to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It turns out he was the son of the man who invented condensed soup, and was himself chairman of the Campbell Soup Co, as well as a generous patron of the Museum and Chairman of its board for many years, dying at the age of 70 in 1989. My mind could not but fly at once to Andy Warhol, whose relationship with the Campbell Soup Company and its products was not a simple one. The giraffe was painted in multiples because it was a wonder, a thing never seen before; Warhol’s soup cans were painted in multiples precisely to underscore their ordinariness. The beast was famous for a little over (not much over) the canonical fifteen minutes; I like to think it was occasionally thought about after it was gone.
Craig Clunas is Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford. He was the co-curator of the recent exhibition, Ming: 50 years that changed China held at the British Museum. Details regarding the exhibition can be found here: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2014/ming.aspx?fromShortUrl