The Wonderful Dromedary and Surprizing Camel

In the late 1750s, Mr Richard Heppenstall caused a sensation when he toured England with a ‘wonderful’ dromedary from Persia and a ‘surprizing’ camel from Grand Cairo, Egypt. If you know anything at all about camels, you’re probably already shouting, ‘stop right there!‘. Yes, we know, we’ll get to that shortly.

A writer from The London Magazine, or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer caught up with Heppenstall at the Talbot Inn in the Strand, where the beasts were on show (the article was published in the May 1758 edition).

The beautiful Dromedary from Grand Cario [sic] in Egypt [actually a Bactrian camel from Persia (Iran) despite the pyramids shown in the background], 1757.
The beautiful Dromedary from Grand Cario [sic] in Egypt [actually a Bactrian camel from Persia (Iran) despite the pyramids shown in the background], 1757. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Heppenstall was, the writer notes, very communicative. Contrary to popular opinion, he did not believe that a camel had a ‘reservoir for water in the gullet’. His dromedary and camel devoured about five trusses of hay a week and shed their hair every year. A sketch of both the animals was taken, and at the time they were being exhibited in the Strand they were shedding ‘otherwise they would have been described as covered with an abundance of scrubbed, curling hair, of a sand hue, which renders colouring the print unnecessary’.

Because just about every print and article we’ve looked at for this blog mislabels the dromedary and camel in question, let’s just get the facts straight. The dromedary or Arabian camel, native to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, has one hump and the Bactrian camel, native to Central Asia, has two. Heppenstall’s Surprizing Camel appears to be a dromedary from ‘Grand Cairo’, Egypt. Maybe that’s what was most surprising about it? His Wonderful Dromedary is, therefore, a two-humped Bactrian not an Arabian camel and from Iran (then Persia). Confused? You will be!

The print below is a later copy (by C. Randle and c.1813) of the drawings which accompanied the May 1758 edition of The London Magazine.

An 1813 (and incorrectly labelled) copy by C. Randle of the prints found in The London Magazine or Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, May 1758. Top is Heppenstall's supposed dromedary (really a Bactrian camel lately brought from Persia) and bottom the Surprizing Camel (actually a dromedary, from Grand Cairo, Egypt).
An 1813 (and incorrectly labelled) copy by C. Randle of the prints found in The London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, May 1758. Top is Heppenstall’s supposed dromedary (really a Bactrian camel lately brought from Persia) and bottom the Surprizing Camel (actually a dromedary, from Grand Cairo, Egypt). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

By the autumn of 1759, Heppenstall, with his dromedary and camel in tow, had reached Scotland. For a few weeks, he exhibited the animals in Edinburgh to much acclaim. On one day, a young lady in mourning asked some questions about these curious beasts of the gentleman standing next to her. Maybe she wanted to know whether it was the dromedary or the camel which had two humps? Hopefully, the gentleman in question knew his camel facts and managed to suitably impress the lady, for she certainly left an impression on him. Did he ever find his lady love again, one wonders?

If the lady who was on Thursday last, at the head of Craig’s close, to see the Dromedary and Camel, dressed in a black silk sack, be unmarried, and her affections disengaged, a gentleman then present, will think that meeting the happiest moment of his life. She may please to remember a young gentleman, in second mourning, whom she asked several questions with regard to the nature of those amazing creatures, their manner of travelling over desarts [sic], &c. If the said lady will please to leave a line, directed for F. W. at the Exchange Coffeehouse, opposite to the Cross, where he may be waited on, it will be esteemed the highest obligation, and such proposals will be immediately made, as he flatters himself will not be disagreeable. The strictest honour and secrecy will be observed.

(Caledonian Mercury, 27th October 1759)

Views in the Levant: a Dromedary or [Arabian] Camel. Willey Reveley, 1785.
Views in the Levant: a Dromedary or [Arabian] Camel. Willey Reveley, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
By the following summer, the travelling show was back in northern England. Did Heppenstall really know his dromedaries from his Bactrian camels? We’re beginning to wonder…

LEEDS

Just arriv’d in this Town, and to be seen at the Sign of the Red-Bear, in Briggate, A Wonderful DROMEDARY and a Surprizing CAMEL. The DROMEDARY was brought from Persia, and is the only one that has appeared in this Kingdom for upwards of fifty years. He has two large protuberances on his back of sold gristle, with large tufts of hair around them, a small head, a fine eye, chews his cud like a cow, and is nineteen hands high. His leg is as fine as a deer’s, and his hind part resembles a mule; and, what is very remarkable, he will walk ten days successively, at the rate of six miles an hour, without drinking. The CAMEL was brought from Grand Cairo, in Egypt. He has only one protuberance, his head and neck resemble the DROMEDARY, and is 21 hands high. They live to a great age. Their common load in 12 or 14 hundred weight. They will continue here ‘till Saturday se’nnight, and then proceed for Bradford, in their way to Halifax.

(Leeds Intelligencer, 3rd June 1760)

This print by Robert Dighton depicts a travelling showman exhibiting his ‘surprizing camel’, maybe the same one albeit some years later (Dighton wasn’t born until 1752). And, as the sign in the etching clearly shows a dromedary and not a camel, perhaps Dighton was working from the same mislabelled copies of the 1758 prints as Mr Randle did in 1813? Or, maybe, Richard Heppenstall was still dragging his dromedary around the provinces of the country. With no further information, we’re not sure whether, if he was, he still thought it was an central Asian rather than a middle eastern variety of camel. We’re thoroughly confused now, as you probably are too!

The Travelling Show Man by Robert Dighton, demonstrating the Surprizing Camel.
The Travelling Show Man by Robert Dighton, demonstrating the Surprizing Camel. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Both camels and dromedaries can live up to 40 or 50 years; in 1780 a camel was depicted outside Dr Fountain’s Boarding School in Marylebone and perhaps this too was the Surprizing Camel which had toured England more than twenty years earlier?

A dromedary or Arabian camel outside Dr Fountain's Boarding School on Marylebone High Street by James Miller, 1780.
A dromedary or Arabian camel outside Dr Fountain’s Boarding School on Marylebone High Street by James Miller, 1780. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

And yes, despite any notations to the contrary on the original, which just names it as a camel, it is a dromedary, albeit one of the ‘Surprizing Camel’ variety.

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