The Earl and the Pussycat

Formal painted portrait of a bald man in a black suit sat by a table and papers

Portrait of 13th Earl of Derby, aged 61, by William Derby (1837) The Right Honourable The Earl of Derby

1 June 2002 - 18 September 2002

Edward Smith Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby (1775-1851) was one of the most prominent natural historians of his day. 'The Earl and the Pussycat' exhibition marked the 150th anniversary of the death of this remarkable man, whose outstanding zoological collections founded Liverpool Museum (now World Museum).

As well as being a politician, landowner, builder, farmer, art collector and eminent Victorian naturalist, the Earl was a patron of the artist and nonsense poet Edward Lear, who wrote The Owl and the Pussycat for his grandchildren.

Portrait of a man wearing glasses and a large beard

Crayon and chalk portrait of Edward Lear by Holman Hunt (1857) National Museums Liverpool

The exhibition featured over 320 extraordinary items ranging from portraits, miniatures, furniture and books to seashells, birds and mammals. It included more than 40 original watercolours by Lear, many drawn from Lord Derby's specimens or from living animals in his menagerie at Knowsley Hall.

A number of the creatures that were displayed are now extinct, such as a 200-year-old flightless swamp hen that lived on Lord Howe Island, off Australia. Others include the Himalayan mountain quail, which vanished in Victorian times, the Paradise Parrot (last seen about 1930) and the Long-tailed Hopping Mouse.

Lord Derby amassed a staggering collection of living animals - at his death there were 1272 birds and 345 mammals at Knowsley, many extremely rare. His programme of breeding species that had never been kept in captivity continues to be admired by modern-day zoo curators.

Sketch showing two eland, one standing and one on the floor

Lord Derby's Eland. Hand-coloured lithograph by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, from Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall. National Museums Liverpool

The 13th Earl also had numerous birds, plants, insects and other animals named after him. A significant part of his collections (which are now at Liverpool Museum) consists of type specimens - the first recorded by science - which are still studied by naturalists today.

He was an important art collector with an interest in portrait miniatures, acquiring masterpieces by painters like Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, as well as landscapes, animal paintings and botanical illustrations. The exhibition reunited some of those illustrations from Lord Derby's library at Knowsley with the original specimens they were taken from.

Pictures like that of the Pink-headed duck, bought by the Earl in 1809 and obtained by Liverpool Museum (now World Museum) in 1998, are an important record of species that have since become extinct. This particular type of bird was a target for wildfowlers in the days of the British Raj on the Indian subcontinent. It is thought to have become extinct in the late 1930s.

Today, the 19th Earl of Derby continues the tradition of animal husbandry as the proprietor of Knowsley Safari Park - part of the Derby's estate in Merseyside. The park was opened in 1971 by the 18th Earl when the concept of the safari park (based on East African game reserves) was new and innovative. It remains one of the region's premier leisure attractions and has won several awards.

Buy our natural history book

'A Passion for Natural History' is now available to buy online from our online bookshop.

The exhibition was sponsored by: