A stunning bronze sculpture of three elephants titled ‘The Wounded Comrade’ by the American artist, Carl E. Akeley (1864-1926), will be sold at Bonhams Sporting Gun Sale in Knightsbridge on July 27.
The powerful bronze which stands a foot and a half tall and broad, shows two elephants supporting a wounded comrade, holding him up on each side. The emotion in this work clearly shows the bond between these intelligent and sensitive animals, and just how much we yet have to learn about them and their world.
Estimated to sell for £40,000-60,000 the bronze has an interesting history. It was begun by Akeley in 1913 at the suggestion of the American financier J.P. Morgan. The bronze was exhibited at the Winter Exhibition of the National Academy of Design in the same year, earning him membership of the National Sculpture Society, and he went on to produce about twenty bronzes in total over the next twelve years, as well as two books about his travels.
Once he had established himself as an artist Akeley moved to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and accompanied President Theodore Roosevelt’s safari in 1909, an experience which itself was captured on film by Cherry Kearton, released under the title With Roosevelt In Africa in 1910. His skill was recognised by his boss, Henry Fairfield Osborn, who compared him to the great classical sculptor Pheidias.
Carl Ethan Akeley had the most adventurous of lives. He was born in Clarendon, New York where he was raised on a farm and had only three years of formal education. He developed an interest in birds as a child, and having taught himself the art of taxidermy from a borrowed book showed his skills at the age of 12 when he preserved a neighbour’s canary.
At 19 he found a job with Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, which he joined in 1883 as an apprentice. Ward’s supplied specimens to natural history museums and fairs, and it was while here that, in 1885, he helped to mount the skin of P.T. Barnum’s elephant, Jumbo, his first major commission.
In 1886 he moved to the Milwaukee Public Museum, and it was there that he created the world’s first museum habitat diorama in 1890. The British Museum, hearing of his talents, offered him a position in 1895, but while en route he stopped in Chicago and was recruited by the Field Museum of Natural History with the promise of African travel. He went on to lead two safaris whilst there, in 1896 and again in 1905, and came to specialise in mounting African wildlife, particularly gorillas and elephants, honing his naturalistic style to create realistic armatures as a base for the specimens he collected.
Whilst on his second expedition in late 1905, returning at dusk from an unsuccessful hunt he and his wife found themselves cornered by a leopard, and Akeley managed only to graze it before running out of ammunition. The leopard jumped and seized his right arm, but in the ensuing struggle Akeley managed to strangle the leopard. It’s skin was later used in a diorama at the Museum of Natural History.
The inspiration for what would become his life’s work, the Hall of African Mammals, came whilst on that expedition. While hunting on Mount Kenya with his team he was attacked and pinned to the ground by an enraged bull elephant, his porters having deserted him. He was only saved after his wife, in the company of two of the porters who had deserted him, returned and carried him down from the mountain.
During his recovery he had a feverish dream which was to become the inspiration for the Hall of African Mammals. Upon his return to America, Akeley was inducted into The Explorer’s Club with the support of three of the club’s founder members, whilst modestly listing for qualifying ‘Explorations in Somaliland and British East Africa’.
In 1921 he set out on his fourth expedition to Mt. Mikeno on the edge of the Belgian Congo, to collect gorillas for exhibition. Whilst there he experienced an epiphany, which radically altered his attitudes and led him, on his return, to campaign for the area to be protected. This resulted in the creation by King Albert I of Belgium of the Albert National Park (later renamed the Virunga National Park) in 1925, the first such park in Africa.