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Albrect Dürer (1471-1528), The Rhinoceros
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Both this rhinoceros and the elephants were created by artists who had never seen the living animals. The creator of the rhino woodcut, Albrect Dürer, is well known. We do not know who made the elephants. This celebrated woodcut records the arrival in Lisbon of an Indian rhinoceros on 20 May 1515 as a gift to the king of Portugal.

A description of the rhinoceros soon reached Dürer in Nuremberg, presumably with sketches, from which Dürer prepared this woodcut. It is not an accurate picture of the actual animal, but his fanciful creation proved so convincing that for the next 300 years European illustrator borrowed from his woodcut, even after they had seen living rhinoceroses without plates and scales. It became the image of what people expected a rhinoceros to look like, partly because of Dürer’s fame and renown as an artist. This print is one of the most famous of over a million prints and drawings from across the world currently held in the British Museum.

Albrect Dürer (1471-1528), The Rhinoceros


From Germany, AD 1515
Ht 24.8 cm
Gift of William Mitchell

Pair of porcelain model elephants

These porcelain elephants were made by craftsmen in Japan for display on the mantelpieces of European houses half a world a way. Like many objects in the British Museum, these exotic elephants are part of a story of the complex links between different parts of the world that over the centuries have led to the movement of ideas, objects and people. Made over 300 years ago, when actual elephants would not have been seen in Japan, these may have been inspired by pictures of Indian processional elephants.

Many such models of animals, including dogs, cats, deer, boars and horses, were made in Japan to be sold in Europe as ornaments. These elephants are decorated in overglaze enamels in the Kakiemon style, in which an opaque white glaze is applied over the clay to give an exquisite milky-white ground (nigoshide) that displays the coloured enamel designs to great effect. Reds, greens, blues and yellows were commonly used.

Albrect Dürer (1471-1528), The Rhinoceros


From Japan, Edo period, late 17th century AD
Ht 35.5 cm
Garner Collection



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