Exhibit of the Week: Pygmy antelope - Scarborough Collections

Pygmy antelope in the Scarborough Collections.
Pygmy antelope in the Scarborough Collections.

Think of an antelope, and our guess is that you’ll imagine something that could easily look you in the eye.

The eland, for instance, can reach six feet in height, while many others of the 90-plus mainly African species can grow to five feet tall, or considerably more if you include the horns.

But this little chap is a genuine antelope, and is barely 18 inches high. He’s a pygmy antelope, part of the taxidermy section of the Scarborough Collections, and he has an interesting local(ish) connection.

He’s believed to be the holotype for his species – that is, the original specimen used to describe and name a species for the very first time.

His Latin name is Hylarnus harrisoni, and he’s the smallest ungulate to be found in East Africa. The harrisoni part of his name was taken from Lieutenant Colonel James Jonathan Harrison of Brandesburton Hall, near Beverley.

Harrison was the local squire, and had been educated at Harrow and Oxford. He was an officer in an elite cavalry unit, but never saw active service. He travelled extensively, often big game hunting, including in Japan, India, Africa and America.

He brought back many treasures from his travels, including big game trophies and ethnographic material including weapons and tools.

His most famous (these days, perhaps ‘infamous’ is a more appropriate word) ‘trophies’, though, were another type of pygmy – the six humans which he brought back to East Yorkshire from the Ituri forest in the eastern Congo in 1905.

Harrison had returned from a trip to the Congo the previous year with many hunting trophies (including, most probably, this pygmy antelope, which is recorded as having been killed in the Semliki forest in 1904) but was teased by friends that he hadn’t brought back some native pygmies – so he promptly went back to the Congo to get some.

The six – four men, Chief Bokane, Mongonga, Mafutiminga and Matuka, and two women, Princess Kuarke and Amuriape – caused a sensation in Edwardian Britain. Harrison set them up as a sort of entertainment troupe, and they toured the country, performing tableaux of their home country, and singing native songs to paying audiences.

In between tours, the group lived at Brandesburton, where Harrison had built a glass hothouse to replicate the climate of the equatorial rain forest. Eventually, they were repatriated in 1908, evidently unharmed by their two-and-half years away from home, but not before they had performed for an estimated million people, including at the London Hippodrome, the House of Commons and Buckingham Palace.

After his death in 1923, Harrison’s widow offered his collection of big game trophies, ethnographic material, documents and some remarkable photographs to the then Scarborough Corporation, which accepted – they remain part of the Scarborough Collections to this day. The stuffed animals, weapons and tools were displayed in Scarborough Library until they were moved to the Woodend Museum of Natural History in 1952.

Many of the animals are now on display at Scarborough Art Gallery as part of a visually stunning new exhibition, All Creatures…, curated by internationally-known York artist Mark Hearld, and displaying the taxidermy of the Scarborough Collections in new and imaginative ways. It can be seen until Sunday 25 September, and will be supported by a series of events including a talk at the Art Gallery by Mark Hearld tomorrow evening at 7.30pm, and a series of Taxidermy Demo Days led by award-winning bird taxidermist Carl Church (Saturdays 7, 14, 21, and 28 August, 9am-5pm, £25 per place).

Hylarnus harrisoni is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, contact collections manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.