Clive James quipped that the only scary wildlife Britain could boast were a few adders with exclusive contracts with the BBC Natural History Unit. The chance of being startled by adders in central London is remote but the city abounds in a panoply of arresting if pacific creatures: dragons, eagles, sea-monsters, lions, antelopes, unicorns, springboks, elephants, chameleons – all have found congenial habitats atop and amid London’s buildings and streets. Symbolic and emblematic, artistic and decorative, comic and curious, London’s extraordinary still-life menagerie enlivens the city’s townscape.
Some creatures venture confidently into the open, like the colossal lions of Trafalgar Square; others are shy and hard to spot: have you ever noticed Sir Charles Wheeler’s beautiful art deco springbok in the same square, adorning South Africa House?
Fortunately there is a field guide to help track these sometimes elusive capital creatures: Ianthe Ruthven has patiently stalked and exquisitely photographed the metropolis’s silent fauna in Animal London: a spotter’s guide.
Ruthven’s pictorial guide reveals an heterogeneous animal throng created from sundry media (wood, iron, bronze, stone, marble, terracotta), fashioned by several means (engraved, carved, cast, gilded, painted) and set up in diverse form (monuments, sculptures, reliefs, coats of arms, crests, roundels, and weather vanes). It’s an intriguing, singular book.
One creature that has adapted very successfully to London living is the lion – that stock emblem of power, majesty and courage.
The species’ flourishing presence in London is surveyed in Valerie Colin-Russ’s pocket guide London Pride: the 10,000 lions of London, in which the city’s lion population is described, pictured and classified. Non-conformist lions get their own chapter: “Lions in odd places or doing odd things”. There’s also a checklist arranged by London borough.