My interest in the representation of zebras in art goes back to the three years I spent working at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. It is not only home to the largest collection of British art outside Britain, but (more importantly, I think), home to one of the best-ever paintings of a zebra made in Britain, in George Stubbs's evocative 1763 portrait.
Zebras were rarely seen in the UK before the nineteenth century, and there is still a certain amount of ignorance about their cultural and natural history. Not everyone knows, for instance, that there are three species of zebra (plains, mountain, and Grévy's), or that there was once a zebra subspecies called the quagga, which was half-striped, half-orange, and which was driven to extinction in the late nineteenth century, a victim of colonial expansion. Grévy's zebras still face the threat of extinction today.
The majority of the zebras in British collections, however, are by western artists, and largely ignore the rich and varied meanings that zebras have held across the many African regions in which they are found.
While zebras have never been a common subject for artists, there are over 40 paintings tagged with 'zebra' on Art UK, and some great works in public collections that, as works on paper, aren't yet on the site – such as Ustad Mansur's incredible watercolour at the V&A. The paintings on Art UK take on a wide range of zebra-related themes, from the popularity of zebra print in the world of contemporary fashion, to images which try to capture the reality of encountering zebras in the wild. Selecting a few was difficult; here, however, are my top ten zebra-related paintings, in chronological order:
George Stubbs, Zebra, 1763
One of the most interesting things about this painting is that we still don't know why it was made. The pictured animal – a mountain zebra – was something of a celebrity. Gifted to Queen Charlotte in 1762, it drew crowds when exhibited to the public in a paddock outside Buckingham House. Responses from the creative community varied, from crude poems written on the subject of 'The Queen's Ass', to this meticulous and strangely moving painting, found in George Stubbs's studio after his death. As a renowned painter of horses, it's perhaps no surprise that Stubbs should master the zebra; why he chose to locate it within a leafy English wood is less easy to understand.
Jacques Laurent Agasse, Male Quagga from Africa, the First Sire, 1821
This isn't Agasse's only portrait of a zebra – he also painted a pair of mountain zebras – but it gains importance from its association with Lord Morton, one of a few figures to experiment with zebra hybrids – i.e. cross-breeding zebras and quaggas with horses or donkeys to create new species. One such experiment (now known as the case of 'Lord Morton's mare') yielded unexpected results, which may have prompted Lord Morton to have this portrait painted.
Ramsay Richard Reinagle, Landscape with Animals (An African Scene), 1828
The expansion of the British Empire into southern Africa, and the growing thirst for natural history among the British aristocracy, ensured that zebras could be increasingly found in unexpected places as the nineteenth century wore on. When Philip Davies Cooke inherited the family estate in Owlston, outside Doncaster, in 1821, he decided to stock the ground with exotic animals, including zebras and quagga. Strangely, when he asked artist Ramsay Reinagle to capture the scene, the Yorkshire landscape was supplanted with a fictitious quasi-African backdrop. Doncaster Museums still own a taxidermy mount of one of Owlston's quaggas.
Filippo Palizzi, The Animals Leaving the Ark, Mount Ararat, c.1861–c.1864
Like many nineteenth-century artists, Palizzi made a career out of animal paintings, mostly focussing on idealised farmyard scenes. In the 1860s, however, he appears to have taken on the more ambitious subject of Noah's Ark. Although Noah was said to have taken two of every animal, modern representations of Noah's Ark frequently concentrate on what are sometimes called 'charismatic megafauna' – i.e. the most famous and best-loved animals. Palizzi's work is typical in its focus on African animals, with the two zebras literally taking centre-stage.
John Everett, A Convoy, 1918, 1918
There have been many instances of ships named after zebras. The first HMS Zebra was launched as early as 1777, and many others followed suit. The black-and-white striped ship that appears in John Everett's painting was not named after a zebra, but it was possibly inspired by one. In 1918 Everett was asked by the Ministry of Information to make pictures of 'dazzle' ships, a form of camouflage devised by John Graham Kerr, a zoology professor, who believed the now largely discredited theory that a zebra's stripes make them harder for predators to see from a distance.
Christopher Wood, Zebra and Parachute, 1930
There is something innately surreal about zebras – at least for non-African audiences, who are often astonished and unnerved by the combination of something very familiar (a horse), and something very unfamiliar (elegant black-and-white stripes). Though they may look like painted donkeys, zebras behave very differently, usually refusing to be tamed. We don't know quite what British Surrealist Christopher Wood saw in them, but this peculiar work of art – one of the last he painted before his early death – in which a zebra is juxtaposed with modernist architecture and a falling parachutist, is a certainly a memorable one.
Carel Victor Morlais Weight, Escape of the Zebra from the Zoo during an Air Raid, 1940
By the twentieth century, most western zoos owned a zebra or two. During the Blitz, the zebra house at London Zoo received a direct hit from a bomb. According to one newspaper report, 'a roof beam came down between two zebras in a stall, but without touching them'. No serious injuries were reported, but one zebra took advantage of the situation, and made a break for it, running loose in nearby Camden Town. The subsequent (successful) chase was immortalised in paint by Carel Weight, who based his four-part painting on eye-witness accounts.
Norman Ellis, Leicester City Centre, 1952
This post-war painting of Leicester does not, sadly, feature a live zebra. However, it is an early painting of a zebra crossing: the now ubiquitous road-crossing introduced to British streets in the late 1940s. Ellis's birds-eye view of the city centre was probably not made with road safety monitoring in mind (although, interestingly, zebra-crossings do appear elsewhere in his work); nonetheless, it serves as a surprisingly useful record of traffic-control. The most famous image of a zebra-crossing, of course, would appear more than ten years later, on the cover of The Beatles' album Abbey Road (1969). The Abbey Road crossing is now a Grade II listed site.
Peter Blake, The Masked Zebra Kid, 1965
The 'Masked Zebra Kid' was the name assumed by the wrestler George Bollas in the late 1940s. He is rumoured to have taken on the name on account of the zebra-like stretch marks caused by his fluctuating weight. Bollas continued to wrestle into the 1960s, when he caught the attention of pop-artist Peter Blake, whose mixed-media collages often celebrated popular subcultures. Here Blake combines a painting of Bollas in his mask with an original autograph, photographs of Bollas in action and, on top of it all, what looks like a nineteenth-century illustration of a zebra. Nowadays, zebra-print tends to be associated with female fashion.
Mruta Hashim Bushiri, Zebra and Birds
Zebras are not an uncommon subject for contemporary artists, as Art UK indicates. The majority of the zebras in British collections, however, are by western artists, and largely ignore the rich and varied meanings that zebras have held across the many African regions in which they are found. One of the exceptions is this painting, by the Tanzanian painter Hashim Mruta. Mruta was a follower of the artist Edward Said Tingatinga, who pioneered a style of art (now known as 'Tinga Tinga style') that combined various African traditions with cheap modern painting materials. 'Tingatinga' paintings were largely made for the tourist trade, and therefore commonly feature popular African mammals such as zebras.
Samuel Shaw, University of Leicester, co-founder of the Edwardian Culture Network
Samuel's 2018 book, Zebra, was published as part of Reaktion's Animal Series.