Buried deep among The Portico’s impressive, 25,000-strong collection of books, spanning subjects such as ‘Voyages and Travels’, ‘Correspondence’ and ‘Local History’, sits one of the library’s oldest, and perhaps most curious acquisitions of all: an original, leather-bound copy of Historiae Animalium (“Accounts of Animals”), vol. I.
Now regarded as the starting point of modern zoology, the 4,500-page text is an encyclopaedic inventory of actual and mythological animals in which its author – the 16th century Swiss physician and naturalist Conrad Gessner – makes no distinction between the real and the imaginary. Setting out to include every animal in the world, familiar creatures such as elephants, hamsters and camels appear alongside others like the unicorn (which, Gessner speculates, probably didn’t make it onto Noah’s Ark) and numerous unusual specimens labelled ‘monsters’.
For The Portico’s latest exhibition, Beautiful Monsters, seven international artists have been invited to respond to Gessner’s text and other volumes from the library’s collection, resulting in a diverse series of new works (spanning everything from drawing, painting and textiles to robotics) that consider where the idea of the monstrous sits within themes of history, mythology and 21st century life.
Beautiful Monsters was initiated by artist and curator Anya Charikov-Mickleburgh and also features Laura Dekker, Donal Moloney, Ed Saye, Evgenyi Strelkov and Dina Varpahovsky.