Sculptures of Ostriches

Victorian and Edwardian public sculpture in England featuring the ostrich is in shockingly short supply. The ostrich, with its long neck and large head, is structurally difficult to produce in stone, so necessitates either to be shown as sculpture in high relief, or if in the round, to have the neck leaning against something. Only two examples leap to mind. The first is the one which is part of the Victoria Memorial, accompanying the putti for the South Africa Gate. Here the ostrich is seated; in the picture its bony leg can be seen between the leg of the putti and the branch; and its neck twists back in a well-captured ostrich gesture, to lean against the foliage on the same branch. It is somewhat worn, but we can still see the lines of the plumage on the wings and breast, and something of the quizzical ostrich expression.

Ostrich in high relief, behind the lion.

Our second example is on the pediment of the British Museum, where the ostrich sculpture is in high relief, behind the seated lion. The advantage of the position is that the sculpture is well sheltered, so the detail of the feathers is well preserved, including the downy feathering of the lower neck; the disadvantage is that the sculpture is somewhat obscured, and is typically seen as in this photo, with the head rather lost in the gloom.

Ostrich plumes, in the hand and on the head.

Ostrich feathers are rather less unusual in British sculpture, and are in particular associated with allegorical figures of Africa. I have picked out three here. First, above left is the figure of Africa from the Manchester Free Trade Hall, who in one hand has a large plume of ostrich feathers, as both symbol of that continent and one of the exports to Britain. Second, above right, a head of an African girl, with exotic headdress of three ostrich feathers which almost double the height of the portrait bust this particular panel is also in Manchester, on the Old Town Hall. And the third, below, is a statue, at one time well known, called The African, by the Italian sculptor Emanuele Caroni. Her headdress, more modest than the Manchester example, may or may not be ostrich feathers, but her skirt most certainly is, an elegant and eye-catching garment indeed.

Emanuele Caroni's The African, with ostrich feather skirt.

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