We visited the county of Derbyshire, UK, a few weeks ago, travelling through an area that I suppose in the United States would be considered a fly-over zone. That is, most people from the more popular regions would fly over this region rather than pick it as a destination.
We were there with friends, one of whom had studied at the University of Sheffield. And not only were we lucky when it came to walking between raindrops, but these knowledgeable friends had booked us into the disarmingly attractive Devonshire Arms hotel in Beeley.
It was in the pub of this 18th century inn that I found the bronze object above, perched on a stone ledge. The manager told me it had been given to the inn some decades earlier by Chatsworth House, and had been on the stone ledge since anyone could remember.
For me, it was clear what it was intended to represent, and also, what it actually represented.
Not far from Beeley is the Chatsworth House estate of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. If you’ve ever seen the 2008 movie The Duchess, you’ve seen some of this incredible place. A vast collection of artwork, magnificent gardens, and a telephone recording that features the current Duke politely requesting your patience until the next operator is available.
The crest of the Cavendish family, that is to say of the Duke of Devonshire, is a snake. And this motif can be seen throughout Chatsworth House. The same crest is a recurring image at the Devonshire Arms.
So it follows that the entwined, scaled bronze from the pub was taken to be a snake.
But I don’t think that’s what it is.
So I called the Collection department at Chatsworth House, described the bronze and its location, and a very friendly person told me that the object was listed as a “Bronze of the British Modern school, 20th century, snake.” But the Chatsworth collection files had no image of the bronze itself. Nor did they have listings whatsoever of any pangolins in their collection, which they checked once I explained what a pangolin is.
I told her that I didn’t think the bronze was of a snake. I am pretty sure the object is meant to be a curled pangolin.
The thick tail, the triangular scales, the large body in relation to the tail, all looks very pangolin-ish. Unfortunately, the sculpture is lacking an identifying head or any feet – turned on its back, there is a second tail curled to the middle. So, really, the bronze is of the tail ends of two pangolins.
I plugged the photo of the bronze which I had taken into Google Image search. Here are a few of my results:
There are many interesting and rather random images, but neither pangolin nor snake appeared. I can’t be entirely sure, at this point, whether the pub bronze is a snake or a pangolin.
Here’s a more modern bronze of a pangolin.
And here’s an actual pangolin curled into defensive position.
Why do I care?
Simple: I’m intrigued by these odd, rapidly disappearing mammals, and when I see what looks like a representation of one in an unexpected location, it piques my curiosity.
Like the various photos that came up when I searched for the bronze, we can see any number of things when we look at a certain image, depending on our perspective.
Be that as it may: Pangolins are one of the strangest mammals on the planet, they are the only scaled mammals, and they are being poached into extinction before most people will have ever heard of them.
Perhaps as important, I deeply enjoy the occasional wild goose chase. Or in this case, pangolin chase.