In Chichester, a small city in southern England, there is a large Georgian townhouse which now serves as an art gallery. There’s a lot of interesting art on the inside, but there’s something equally interesting on the outside: The two gateposts which stand before the original front door are topped by ostrich statues… At least they are supposed to be ostriches – but, to most people, they look more like dodos.
Who Built the House?
Before we find out why there are ostriches on the pillars, let’s talk about the history of the house. The original house, which is now part of Pallant House Gallery, was built in 1712 for Henry ‘Lisbon’ Peckham, a local wine merchant.
Henry was an ambitious 27-year-old who married Elizabeth Albery, a 40-something, rich widow. They married in 1711, but alas, their marriage was not a happy one. By 1717 they had already begun their legal battle for separation. And it seems that their marital problems were, at least partly, due to the building of their expensive new home. Elizabeth reportedly requested so many changes that the house cost double the original estimate – coming in at a whopping £3,000. (Today, all you can get for that is a garden shed – but back in the early 1700s, it must have been a fortune.)
Henry wanted something special to sit on the gateposts outside his impressive front door and decided that ostriches were just the thing. That may seem like an odd choice, but actually, it made perfect sense. The ostrich was the proud bird on the Peckham family crest.
But the question is, did Henry actually get ostriches on his gateposts? Well, he definitely got two birds, but most people agree that they resemble dodos more than ostriches. In fact, the local nickname for Pallant House is the Dodo House. People often assume that the stone mason had never seen an ostrich and just gave it his best effort, but could that be true?
Ostriches and Europeans
Did 18th century Brits know what ostriches looked like? They probably did. Even though the big flightless birds are native to Africa, the western world had known of them for many centuries. When the Romans were in Africa, they would have seen them, and Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman author and naturalist, described them in his writings. However, not everything the ancient author wrote was correct.
Do Ostriches Eat Iron?
In the first century, Pliny the Elder wrote that ostriches “…have the marvellous property of being able to digest every substance without distinction…”
Pliny doesn’t name any of the substances that an ostrich might eat, but in a second-century text called Physiologus, an unknown Greek author, takes ostrich dietary habits a bit further. He says, “[The ostrich] eats whatever it finds. It even visits the blacksmith, devouring red-hot iron, passing it immediately through its intestines, from which it emerges still glowing…”
Today, I think we would question this account, but the medieval folks, who believed in beasts with special powers, took it as fact. And in medieval artwork, ostriches are often shown eating iron horseshoes, keys, or nails.
Ostriches in England
From the 1200s to 1835, the Tower of London housed a menagerie of exotic animals, and ostriches were among them. Because zoo visitors believed that ostriches ate iron, they would throw them nails. Apparently, ostriches will swallow anything, and they gobbled up the nails. When one of the zoo’s birds died, he had 80 (undigested) nails in his stomach. Ostriches have no teeth, so they swallow pebbles (and sometimes other small objects, such as bits of iron) which stay in their gizzard to grind their food.
Ostriches and Heraldry
The ostrich began to show up on family crests because of the belief that the great bird could digest anything. It came to symbolize strength and toughness. In heraldry it represented a family that was strong and could take on anything. Or that the founder of the family had had a hard way to go, but he swallowed it and survived.
The ostrich was also an exotic animal which was a symbol of wealth, since the wealthy were the only ones to own them.
But are They Dodos?
So did Henry Peckham really hire an incompetent mason to carve the birds that represented his family? The birds that were to sit in front of his no-expense-spared house? I doubt it.
Let’s consider the predicament of the poor stone mason… An ostrich has a large body sitting on top of two long spindly legs – not the easiest, nor the most stable, form to carve. Not to mention that long thin neck which was just an accident waiting to happen… One bump and a long-necked ostrich would look like a victim of the French Revolution.
That just wouldn’t do. Adjustments would have to be made: Those tall legs would have to be shortened and beefed up – and the same with the neck. Then he’d have to add some broccoli-stalk type thing at the back to hold up the bird’s bottom and tail feathers. The result was something that looked like a dodo, but at least it was stable.
Henry and the stone mason had come up with a good solid design that came close enough to resembling an ostrich. They probably figured that the citizens of Chichester wouldn’t be very well-versed in ostrich anatomy, and they wouldn’t notice anything unusual. Maybe that was the case in 1712, but at some point (possibly with the mid-19th-century publication of Alice in Wonderland) the public became aware of what dodos looked like. And Henry Peckham’s house was dubbed “The Dodo House.” Thankfully, Henry was gone by then.
Pallant House Gallery: British art from 1900 to now
Some other fun facts about the ostrich:
- In the 2nd century, it was believed that the ostrich had the ability to hatch their eggs simply by staring at them intensely.
- In the 13th century, the ostrich was known as the camel bird because it has two toes on each leg similar to a camel.
- Today it’s a common belief that ostriches bury their heads in the sand to hide from danger. Not true. This idea probably came from people observing the ostrich digging out a nest in the sand.
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