One of my favourite conceits in Saki’s stories is the idea of “wolves and wapiti fighting on the steps of the Athenaeum Club.”
The quotation comes from the story ‘On Approval’ (in Beasts and Superbeasts). In it aspiring but penniless painter Gebhard Knopfschrank specialises in “an unusual and unvarying theme”:
His pictures always represented some well-known street or public place in London, fallen into decay and denuded of its human population, in the place of which there roamed a wild fauna, which, from its wealth of exotic species, must have originally escaped from Zoological Gardens and travelling beast shows. “Giraffes drinking at the fountain pools, Trafalgar Square,” was one of the most notable and characteristic of his studies, while even more sensational was the gruesome picture of “Vultures attacking dying camel in Upper Berkeley Street.” There were also photographs of the large canvas on which he had been engaged for some months, and which he was now endeavouring to sell to some enterprising dealer or adventurous amateur. The subject was “Hyaenas asleep in Euston Station,” a composition that left nothing to be desired in the way of suggesting unfathomed depths of desolation.
I recently happened to discover that the idea of painting a well-known place in a state of future ruination is common enough in art. The first reference that I came across to this sub-genre of painting referred to Hubert Robert’s 1796 painting Vue imaginaire de la Grande Galerie en ruines, which depicts part of the Louvre Museum in Paris, its roof collapsed and the artworks half buried under rubble:Here’s another painting (also by Hubert Robert) showing what it actually looked like:
More relevant to Saki is English painter and architect Joseph Gandy’s ‘Soane’s Bank of England as a ruin’ (1830):
This one can be seen at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. (Soane commissioned it himself.) Unfortunately the artist’s imagined vantage point is too high up for the viewer to be able to discern any wolves, giraffes, hyena or similar wild animals.
Apparently Gandy painted other similar fantasies (the technical term is capricci). I wonder if Saki knew them — and perhaps even drew inspiration from them?
You can read more about Gandy here:
- The Athenauem Club is is a private members’ club on Pall Mall in London. Membership is reserved to those who have in some way distinguished themselves in science, engineering, literature or the arts. ↩