An Oxford Bestiary

An Oxford Bestiary. Sophie Huxley. Huxley Scientific Press, pbk, 62pp, £7.99.

This delightful and unusual book surveys the animal presence in Oxford, as it appears in sculpture, painting, scientific specimen, literature, anecdote, and the real life of the college gardens. The author, Sophie Huxley, finds and celebrates a whole menagerie of animals from bees to dragons which have provided beauty, meaning, mystery, and companionship to Oxford’s people. The folk art of the pub sign is here, as well as the high art of the Ashmolean; Bill Heine’s outrageous roof-top shark in Headington is next door to van Linge’s stained-glass whale in Lincoln Chapel. The survey is enriched by Paul Freestone’s photographs, which capture the beauty of line and texture, and the drama of some of these animal appearances. Although the Bestiary is organised by species and genre, it can easily be used as a tour guide by means of an excellent index.

Sophie Huxley views these animals and their stories with a generous and good-humoured curiosity. Wisely, no doubt, she does not herself sermonize about their strange and involuntary role in Oxford’s culture, although the foreword by Peter Whitfield does offer some helpful interpretations. Therefore the reader, dazzled by this Oxford ark, is left to decide what to make of the humans who have thus attentively and often lovingly re-made the world’s creatures in stone, wood, paint, and words, who have delighted in their company as pets and living curiosities, and who have also (as the book records) variously shot, stuffed, experimented on, and heartily eaten them.

Matthew Simpson

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