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Miss Clara The International Celebrity Superstar The Barber Institute's Celebrity Beasts in Art, 1500-1860

Miss Clara The International Celebrity Superstar

The Barber Institute's Celebrity Beasts in Art, 1500-1860

by Ancient Champion, Columnist
first published: January, 2022

approximate reading time: minutes

Miss Clara led a much ballyhoo'd life. Whether she wanted to, or, as there is some evidence in the exhibition, not.

Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500-1860 
12 November 2021 – 27 February 2022
Barber Institute of Fine Arts

I don’t mean to carp but finding parking to see the Celebrity Beasts in Art at the Barber Institute was like riding around the periphery of Birmingham University on some sort of wild goose chase. Finally, parked up at the Winterbourne Gardens and since they are on their winter hours schedule, as the seeds sleep, it was relatively quiet. Although of course I know there’s a lot going on in the garden in winter.

Arriving at the Barber Institute, the docent-greeter at the gift area was so lovely and amazing and polite, explaining that on the weekends just ringing the parking barrier bell will have them spring into life and let you and your motor in.

Miss Clara, the Celebrity Beast, was a 5000lb rhinoceros, born free in India, she died in captivity in London in 1758. As with almost all Celebs, Miss Clara led a much ballyhoo’d life. Whether she wanted to, or, as there is some evidence in the exhibition, not.

When Miss Clara disembarked at Amsterdam in 1741, there had not been a rhinoceros seen in mainland Europe for over 150 years.  The captain of her ship was Douwe Mout van der Meer - an early doors Seigfried and Roy without the plastic surgery or magic. Miss Clara was an immediate and incandescent star. Touring around the continent in a  wooden cart special carriage drawn by 8 horses.  Feted by commoners and kings and the queens alike. It could cost half a day's wage of a skilled worker to see her.

Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500-1860, is concentrated, informative and eloquently detailed. Clear questions of morality and menageries abound. Colonialism is evident at the heart of the art. From the dazzling beauty of the sculptings and the hi-style of pachyderm clocks, there is the insidious feeling of doom, disaster and impending petrification. There’s the routine torture, there's the madness brought about by inhumane captivity, there's the summary death sentences carried out by the firing squads.  

Navving around I was imbued with a similar feeling I’d had when moving through the John and Yoko Double Fantasy exhibition in Liverpool, wending its way toward tragedy.

From the press release:
A Rhinoceros, called Miss Clara, one of the most-loved objects in the Barber’s collection. This small sculpture (just 46.5cm long by 24cm high) is believed to be a ‘portrait’ of a real rhino. For the first time ever the Barber bronze will be shown alongside the only other cast of this model (Victoria and Albert Museum), a unique marble version of the same size (Bowes Museum), and a unique larger marble version from the Rothschild Family Trust. This last itself weighs in at over half a tonne, has never been displayed publicly before.

You must know that a show about a rhinoceros cannot ultimately be anything but political. Those were the days. Peeking in now at Miss Clara, the Celebrity Beast’s life almost 250 years ago in this immersive exhibition feels voyeuristic. The journeys are short, but painful. And now I hope for everyone.

Essential Info
Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500-1860 
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts is the art gallery
for the University of Birmingham.
Admission Free Booking recommended.
Parking Free on Weekends.
Great Show Book available too.
Barber Website is here

Ancient Champion

Ancient Champion writes for OUTSIDELEFT while relentlessly recording and releasing instrumental easy listening music for difficult people. The Champ is working on Public Transport, a new short story collection that takes up where 2021's Six Stories About Motoring Nowhere (Disco City Books) left off. It should be ready in time for the summer holidays. More info at

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