Book Review: Clara’s Grand Tour by Glynis Ridley

Clara’s Grand Tour (2006) by Glynis Ridley is quite simply the delightful tale of a rhinoceros and her travels in Europe in the Eighteenth-Century. I learned about Clara on my trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles where her portrait was the centerpiece of an exhibit of paintings by Jean-Baptiste Oudry.

Clara was a young Indian rhinoceros purchased in 1741 by Dutch sea captain Douwemout Van der Meer who then transported her to Europe. For the next 17 years, Clara and Van der Meer traveled across Europe, often in a specially designed wagon, and occasionally on a barge along the River Rhine. I don’t know if the pun would work in Dutch, but Ridley makes no mention of Van der Meer advertising her as a Rhine-oceros on these occasions.

At any rate, Clara was the first live rhinoceros in Europe for centuries and she attracted crowds wherever she traveled including royalty, philosophes, and artists. Ridley credits Van der Meers advance notice posters as the first multi-national advertising campaign. Similarly, Clara created a cottage industry in memorabilia from commemorative medals to high-class decorative arts in her image. Paris and the court of Louis XV were swept up in rhinomania with Clara inspiring fashions and fads. The king himself though balked at the cost Van der Meer asked for purchase, so Clara did not get to retire in the menagerie at Versailles.

Clara died on tour in London with the location of her remains now unknown, and Van der Meer faded from the written record. During her time, she helped redefine the image of rhinoceros for Europeans familiar with myth and scripture regarding unicorns and Behemoths. Her gentle nature contradicted that legend that rhinoceros and elephants are mortal enemies who will fight to the death. Similarly, Clara captured in art provided the first real image of the rhinoceros to a society reliant for centuries on Albrecht Dürer’s image of a rhinoceros in armor. On a total tangent, I love how things in my life totally overlap so that while I was reading this book this image appeared in my Bloglines in this post on Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog (where it’s used for an analogy about social networking tools).

I enjoyed this book despite the fact that Ridley writes in a dry academic style. Her constant hedging on what she has reasonable proof to be accurate is distracting. Similarly, she constantly refers to images of which only a few are included in the book, and they are packed in the mid-section of the book not with the text that describes them. Still, how could you not like a book about a rhinoceros traveling across Europe, especially with details like her love for oranges and tobacco smoke?

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