It is nearly World Animal Day and for this reason we are putting the spotlight on chess-playing pets. This adorable scene is a lovely statue that you can admire at the museum. Real animals that can do something unusual or have a special trait have also been an attraction ever since the beginning of time.

The figurine of the chess-playing dogs ended up at the Chessmen Museum as part of the Rademaker Collection. It is difficult to spot, because the little hairy chess players are hardly any bigger than the chess pieces they share the display case with. The details can only be seen clearly when enlarged. Both the chess-board and the glasses are almost empty, so it must have been a fun evening.

Figurine of chess-playing animals, Rademaker Collection

We viewers always enjoy it when we can spot human traits in animals. Animals that are exhibited or perform tricks for an audience, like naughty monkeys in clothes, appeal to people immensely. Unfamiliar animals are also guaranteed to attract viewers. Especially in times gone by when television or coloured printed matter didn´t exist, exotic animals were a huge attraction.

Monkey as a gift
From the seventeenth century onwards, exotic animals were frequently brought along on board the ships of the Dutch East India Company (DEIC), the trade ships that travelled back and forth to Indonesia via South Africa. Most of the animals died on the way over, but of some of the survivors, drawings and paintings have fortunately been preserved. These animals ended up at fun-fairs, in the homes of wealthy collectors or were given as a present to governors or kings.

Drawings of the orang-utan from Vosmaers writings, 1778

For example, Governor William V received an orang-utan from Borneo that is portrayed in several drawings and paintings. Aart Schouman drew the monkey a couple of times in 1776, while it picks an apple of a branch, leans on a stick and uses a fork to eat something of a plate. The monkey learned to eat with cutlery soon after his arrival and had a varied diet. He loved strawberries and was pretty fond of parsley too.

Before the orang-utan moved to the governor´s zoo, collector and botanist Arnout Vosmaer had him on a chain in the attic for a month. He wrote down his observations, as he did with the other animals from William V´s zoo. According to the writings about the orang-utan from 1778, the exotic animal usually didn´t live longer than about three years. The animals would then fall ill ‘according to a praiseworthy habit of this zoological garden’, wrote Vosmaer. Vosmaer attributed these high mortality rates to the Dutch climate, the food and the fact that the zoo was built on soil that was too humid.

At the village fair
Exotic animals were often given as a present, but not everybody was happy to receive one. Once they reached adulthood, the space that the animals were kept in became too small, or the animals became too dangerous. These discarded animals generally ended up in the hands of travelling artists who exhibited them. In those days nobody had ever seen something as strange as an elephant, rhinoceros or lion, so these animals attracted masses of people.

Clara in Venice (Studio Pietro Longhi, 1751)

A famous example is Indonesian baby rhinoceros Clara. Jan Albert Sichterman, the director of the Bengal DEIC settlement, got her as a gift when she was a baby, and she grew up in his household. At dinner time, the domesticated Clara would walk around the room, to the amusement of the guests. The little rhino finally got too big though and she was sold to Douwe Mout van der Meer. This DEIC-captain brought Clara back to the Netherlands: on 22 July 1741 they arrived in Rotterdam.

Van der Meer and the rhinoceros travelled around the Dutch fairs and markets for years. He had made Clara a covered cart which had to be pulled by as many as four or six oxen. She ate hay, bread, fruits and vegetables and in big quantities at that: per day she would eat twenty pounds of bread, drink fourteen buckets of water and those were just the basics. Clara had also taken over some bad human habits. She was not averse to a glass of wine and it seems that she liked the smell of tobacco smoke that Van der Meer blew up her nose.

1746 saw the start of a European tour, Clara was that famous by then. Her image was everywhere: in advertisements, on prints and even in paintings. Before Clara came to Western Europe, nobody knew exactly what a rhinoceros looked like. There was only one anatomically incorrect drawing, made in 1515 by Albrecht Dürer, after someone had told him what a rhinoceros looked like. For twelve years, Clara attracted big audiences and she even inspired the Parisian fashion world.

In 1758, the world traveller performed her last show in London, where she died. Unfortunately, many animals would follow in her footsteps. They were exhibited or had to perform tricks to entertain the crowds. At the Chessmen Museum we stick to exhibiting animal figurines and chess sets with an animal theme. Luckily we have plenty of those.

By Marjolein Overmeer