The Pet Parrot: As Depicted in 18th and 19th Century Art, Literature, & History

Woman at the Piano with Cockatoo by Gustave Léonard de Jonghe, (1870).

Woman at the Piano with Cockatoo by Gustave Léonard de Jonghe, (1870).

When thinking of 18th and 19th century pets, we inevitably imagine dogs or cats or small, caged canaries.  Large and colorful exotic birds are not generally the type of animal we envision inhabiting the pages of a Georgian or Regency novel, much less an actual Georgian or Regency home.  It may surprise you to learn that parrots were, in fact, quite popular as pets during the 18th and 19th centuries.

One of the most famous parrots belonged to Colonel O’Kelly.  He bought her in Bristol for one hundred guineas and, over the next thirty years, she became something of a celebrity in England.  She was so well known that when she died on October 9th, 1802, her death was announced in the General Evening Post:

 “A few days ago died, in Half Moon-street, Piccadilly, the celebrated parrot of Colonel O’Kelly.  This singular bird sang a number of songs in perfect time and tune; she could express her wants articulately, and give her orders in a manner approaching nearly to rationality.  Her age was not known; it was, however, more than thirty years, for previously to that period Mr. O’Kelly bought her at Bristol for a hundred guineas.  The colonel was repeatedly offered five hundred guineas a year for the bird, by persons who wished to make a public exhibition of her; but this, out of tenderness to the favourite, he constantly refused.”

Landscape with Exotic Birds and Two Dogs by Jakob Bogdány, (1724).

Landscape with Exotic Birds and Two Dogs by Jakob Bogdány, (1724).

Reverend W. H. Herbert had the privilege of meeting Colonel O’Kelly’s parrot.  He recounts the experience in James Rennie’s Natural History of Birds:

“That wonderful bird, Colonel O’Kelly’s parrot, which I had the satisfaction of seeing and hearing (about the year 1799, if I recollect rightly), beat the time always with his foot, turning round upon the perch while singing, and marking the time as it turned.  This extraordinary creature sang perfectly about fifty different tunes of every kind, ‘God save the King,’ solemn psalms, and humorous or low ballads, of which it articulated every word as distinctly as a man could do, without even making a mistake.  If a bystander sang any part of the song, it would pause and take up the song where the person had left off without repeating what he had said.  When moulting and unwilling to sing, it would answer all solicitations by turning its back and repeatedly saying, ‘Poll’s sick.’”

Study of a Parrot by George Cole, (1858).

Study of a Parrot by George Cole, (1858).

Lord Byron also kept a pet parrot.  He liked to have it near him while he was writing.  Though it was a beautiful bird, it was somewhat aggressive and, on one occasion, it swooped down as he was leaving the room and attacked him until the “blood flowed copiously.”  According to biographer Wilson Knight:

“Instead of being excited by the pain produced, his Lordship was only lost in admiration at the strong attachment of the bird, which he instantly caressed, and…exclaimed, ‘Was this well done, Jenny?’”

Parrots are mentioned as pets in many other factual accounts of the 18th and 19th centuries.  One particular incident involved a court case in which two parties disputed the ownership of a pet parrot.

“The plaintiff taking the bird upon his finger, said, ‘Come, old boy, give me a kiss,’ which the parrot instantly did.  A youth in the defendant’s interest, remarked that this proved nothing, as the parrot would kiss anybody.  ‘You had better not try,’ remarked the plaintiff.  Nevertheless the young man asked the parrot to kiss him.  Poll, Judas like, advanced as if to give the required salute, but seized the youth’s lip and made him roar with pain.  This fact, and the parrot’s obeying the plaintiff in several other requisitions, caused it to be instantly ordered into the possession of its original master.”

Portrait of Madame de Chateaurenard bby Joseph Andre Cellony, (1730).

Portrait of Madame de Chateaurenard by Joseph Andre Cellony, (1730).

Parrots have their place in literature of the Georgian and Regency era as well.  In Scottish author Christian Isobel Johnstone’s popular 1815 novel, Clan-Albin, she describes the “large and beautiful grey parrot” ensconced in a splendid cage in the drawing room.  This particular parrot has been “most unluckily” instructed in politics.  When the politics of the household change, the parrot is not informed and sees “no necessity for renouncing old principles and practices.”  As Johnstone writes:

“When Mr. Secretary approached, therefore, with the manifest design of making its acquaintance, it croaked proud disdain; and…in the loudest and most discordant tones it screamed forth its usual political creed, throwing a bold defiance in the teeth of statesman and courtier, squalling, ‘Rope for Pitt’— ‘Walk rogues,’ —  ‘Coach for Fox:’ and over and over, with might and main, it screamed the eternal sum of its political opinions, in defiance of threats and remonstrances.”

The Parrot by Arnold Willms, (1860-1900).

The Parrot by Arnold Willms, (1860-1900).

Talking parrots are often used in this way in historical novels, both for comic effect and to say that which cannot be said by the characters themselves.  In Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance, The Grand Sophy, the title character arrives at her relative’s residence in London with a parrot –and several other animals – in tow.  The parrot promptly scandalizes the governess with its salty talk:

“Charles!  Charles!” said Amabel, tugging at his sleeve.  “She has brought us a parrot too, and it talks capitally!  Only Addy would put her shawl over its cage, because she said horrid, rough sailors must have taught it to speak.  Do tell her not to!”

“Oh, good God, I am quite undone!”  Sophy exclaimed in comical dismay.  “And the man promised the wretched bird would say nothing to put anyone to the blush!  Now, what is to be done?”

Children with Parrot by Christina Robertson, (1850).

Children with Parrot by Christina Robertson, (1850).

Depictions of parrots were not limited to novels.  From as far back in history as the writings of Ovid, poets have incorporated the exotic, talking birds into their poems.  In the early 19th century, poet T. S. Allen wrote The Parrot: a poem in four Cantos.  In it, we learn the story of Ver-vert, a pampered parrot residing in a convent.  The poem reads in part:

 A parrot lately dwelt, (you ask me where,)

At Nevers, with the Visitandines there,

A famous bird, so well he play’d his part,

Of manners easy, and of generous heart,

And might have fill’d a station less severe,

If lovely creatures always happy were.

This noted bird from India’s borders came,

Transported thence, and Ver-vert was his name;

Was very young, and little understood, —

Shut up within this convent for his good.

Fair, florid, neat, and very gay was he,

Lovely and frank, as youth are wont to be;

In short, a prating bird, yet meek and lowly,

And well deserving of a place so holy 

 

Portrait of Mathilde de Canisy, Marquise d'Antin, by Jean-Marc Nattier, (1738).

Portrait of Mathilde de Canisy, Marquise d’Antin, by Jean-Marc Nattier, (1738).

If you are an author writing a story set in the 18th or 19th centuries, I hope the above examples have given you some idea of how useful parrots can be as animal characters in historical novels.  Whether you prefer to use them for comic relief, a bit of extra drama, or merely as a prop in the drawing room of a particularly tonnish lady, the possibilities are endless.

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  If you are interested in learning more about parrots or would like to adopt a parrot of your own, I encourage you to utilize the following link as a resource:

The Avian Welfare Coalition

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Gresset, Jean Baptiste.  The Parrot and other poems by T. S. Allen.  London: Longman, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1848.

Heyer, Georgette.  The Grand Sophy.  Chicago: Sourcebooks, 2009.

Johnstone, Christian Isobel.  Clan-Albin, A National Tale.  Vol. IV.  Edinburgh: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown, 1815.

Knight, Wilson.  Lord Byron.  Vol. I.  New York: Routledge, 2002.

Littell, E.  “Animal Humanity.”  Littell’s Living Age.  Vol. X. Jul. Aug. Sept.  Boston: Waite, Peirce, & Company, 1846.

Rennie, James.  Natural History of Birds, Their architecture, habits, and faculties.  New York: Harper Brothers, 1839.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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12 thoughts on “The Pet Parrot: As Depicted in 18th and 19th Century Art, Literature, & History

  1. Sarah M. Fredericks says:

    Dear Mimi,

    What a wonderful post about birds in literature and art! I had to smile at the story of Colonel O’ Kelly’s parrot. Of course, poets also celebrated all kinds of birds through verse (I wonder if Byron wrote one about his bird). As children, I and my three siblings read poems about wild geese, little chickens, robins, and crows (not a parrot though). One of my favorites is by the English poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894). I would like to share it with you.

    The Skylark
    The earth was green, the sky was blue:
    I saw and heard one sunny morn
    A skylark hang between the two,
    A singing speck above the corn;

    A stage below, in gay accord,
    White butterflies danced on the wing,
    And still the singing skylark soared,
    And silent sank, and soared to sing.

    The cornfield stretched a tender green
    To right and left beside my walks;
    I knew he had a nest unseen
    Somewhere among the million stalks.

    And as I paused to hear his song,
    While swift the sunny moments slid,
    Perhaps his mate sat listening long,
    And listened longer than I did.

    Warmest regards
    Sarah M. Fredericks
    🍀copleyclassics.com📚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thank you for commenting, Sarah, and for including that wonderful Rossetti poem! I love the imagery of birds in poetry. I don’t recall the exact quotes, but I know Emily Dickinson mentions birds quite a bit in her poems as well.

      Like

  2. Pam Shropshire says:

    I, too, thought of the poems of Emily Dickinson, who wrote about nature extensively. I know she wrote a poem about a robin and one about an oriole, but my favorite animal one is not about a bird at all. Here it is:

    A NARROW fellow in the grass
    Occasionally rides;
    You may have met him,—did you not?
    His notice sudden is.

    The grass divides as with a comb, 5
    A spotted shaft is seen;
    And then it closes at your feet
    And opens further on.

    He likes a boggy acre,
    A floor too cool for corn. 10
    Yet when a child, and barefoot,
    I more than once, at morn,

    Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
    Unbraiding in the sun,—
    When, stooping to secure it, 15
    It wrinkled, and was gone.

    Several of nature’s people
    I know, and they know me;
    I feel for them a transport
    Of cordiality; 20

    But never met this fellow,
    Attended or alone,
    Without a tighter breathing,
    And zero at the bone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Oh, I love that poem, Pam! It has so many layers to it. I can’t help but feeling that Emily Dickinson must have met a person – a snake in the grass – who had the same effect on her. Poetry is beautiful & fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing 🙂

      Like

  3. Sarah Waldock says:

    My father, who did his national service as a merchant seaman, brought home an African Grey, which was friendly with my grandmother’s kitten, Tim-Tom. they would perch, one on each slippered foot, as she sat at breakfast, and Pol would remark, “Polly likes fruit”. Unfortunately Polly did not thrive in the cold climate and did not live many years; she had probably been sold when too young, which my father didn’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Angelyn says:

    Well done, Mimi, as always! “…over and over, with might and main, it screamed the eternal sum of its political opinions, in defiance of threats and remonstrances.” Remarkable creature!

    Liked by 1 person

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