Not currently on display at the V&A

Leopard and bird

Oil Painting
late 19th century (painted)
Place of origin

An oil painting of a leopard lying at rest, watching a bird flying overhead.

Object details

Object type
TitleLeopard and bird (generic title)
Materials and techniques
Oil on panel
Brief description
Oil painting entitled 'Leopard and Bird' by John Macallan Swan R.A. Great Britain, ca. late 19th century.
Physical description
An oil painting of a leopard lying at rest, watching a bird flying overhead.
  • Estimate height: 9.625in
  • Estimate width: 12.9in
Dimensions taken from Summary catalogue of British Paintings, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973
Marks and inscriptions
'J M Swan' (Signed by the artist)
Credit line
Bequeathed by Henry Louis Florence
Object history
Bequeathed by Henry L. Florence, 1916

John Macallan Swan was a painter and sculptor. Swan was born in Brentford, Middlesex on 9 December 1847 to Scottish parents and grew up in Worcester. He received his art training first in England at the Worcester and Lambeth schools of art and the Royal Academy schools. In 1874 he left England for Paris where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts under Jean-Léon Gérôme. It was during this time that Swan became interested in sculpture. Gérôme introduced Swan to Emmanuel Frémiet, a sculptor who specialised in animal subjects. The pair studied together in the Jardin des Plantes. Swan remained in Paris for five years, after which he returned to England where he lived, first, in Surrey and then in London. He frequented the zoo in Regent’s park where he would observe and sketch the captive animals, paying particular attention to the wild cats. Swan is perhaps best known for his paintings and sculptures of animals but he also painted and sculpted human subjects, particularly favouring depictions of the nude form. Following Frémiet’s instruction Swan had studied under anatomists in Paris and he continued to study at St Thomas's and St Bartholomew's hospitals in London. Swan first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878 and exhibited both paintings and sculptures there numerous times thereafter. He also exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery. He was made a member of the Royal Watercolour Society in London in 1889, was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1894 and was made a full member of that institution in 1905. His reputation and achievements were not solely recognised in England; Swan achieved widespread recognition, becoming well known on the continent and in America. In Paris Swan was awarded a silver medal in 1889 and three gold medals in 1900 (at the Universal Exhibition). At Munich he received a gold medal in 1893 and later the grand medal in 1897. He also won two gold medals at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. Swan married Mary Anne Rankin in Cork in 1884. She was also an artist and specialised in portraits and depictions of children. Together, they had two children, John Barye Rankin and Mary Alice, the latter of which also became an artist. Swan’s most prestigious commission came towards the end of his life, when in 1907 he was asked to execute a lion (to be reproduced eight times) for the memorial to Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town. He was additionally asked to model a bust of Rhodes for the same memorial. It was whilst carrying out this latter charge that Swan died, on 14th February 1910. Examples of Swan’s work are held in a number of institutions including the Manchester City Galleries, Bradford Museums and Galleries, Aberdeen Art Gallery and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In Leopard and Bird Swan depicts one of his most revisited themes; the felidae. He depicts a leopard in a natural setting and adds an element of the primal by incorporating a dead bird, the trophy of a successful hunt. Swan’s loose handling of paint further adds an element of wildness to the scene as, where a highly polished finish would have been suggestive of an enclosure at a zoo, the more sketchy rendering lends the spontaneity and dynamism of the wild. Contemporary writers have commented on Swan’s skill in capturing both the underlying physical structure and the more intangible nature of his subject. Cosmo Monkhouse, in his preface to Catalogue of a collection of studies and drawings of wild beasts by John M. Swan (March 1897 Fine Art Society), wrote that Swan displayed a ‘grasp of the complex structure, … insight into the character, and… sympathy with the nature of the creature.’1

On the back of this work there is an oil study of a recumbent lion.

Cosmo Monkhouse, Preface to Catalogue of a collection of studies and drawings of wild beasts by John M. Swan, (London: Fine Art Society, 1897), p.9
Subjects depicted
Bibliographic reference
In 2015, The Rhodes Must Fall movement began at the University of Cape Town, calling for the decolonisation of South African universities and removal of statues honouring Rhodes on their campus. Their campaign was a success and the 1934 monument by Marion Walgate was removed on 9th April 2015. The protest movement gathered pace around the world with calls to remove a statue of Rhodes on the façade of Oriel College, Oxford, on whom he had bestowed £100,000 in his will. On the 17 June 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter (Black Liberation Movement) demonstrations, Oriel College voted to remove the statue. The Rhodes Trust, Oxford, also issued a renewed commitment to better address the ‘continuing history of pernicious systemic racism’ in which Rhodes played such a significant role as one of the most prominent agents of British imperialism and settler colonialism.
Accession number

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Record createdSeptember 21, 2006
Record URL
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