Comics artist Oliver East is getting set to retrace the steps of a legendary Victorian walk with an elephant from Edinburgh to Manchester this week, for “Take Me Back to Manchester” – a project commissioned by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival and Manchester Museum.
One of Manchester Museum’s prize exhibits is the skeleton of Maharajah, the elephant that walked to Manchester.
Maharajah belonged to Wombwell’s Royal Number One travelling menagerie, one of a number of private menageries touring Britain in the mid-Victorian period. In 1872, its assets, including this Asian elephant, were purchased in Edinburgh by the owners of Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoological Gardens and they planned to send him by train to Manchester, but this plan altered rapidly when he immediately wrecked his railway carriage.
Thrown off the train, his keeper suggested that they should walk to Manchester, perhaps to secure a few extra days work, and this they did over the next ten days.
The tale of the walk has entered zoological and Manchester folklore and, starting out on Wednesday 8th April, Manchester comic artist Oliver East will retrace the 200 mile walk, over ten days.
He’ll be accompanied not by an elephant but by his phenomenal imaginative, drawing and narrative skills. To challenge himself further, Oliver will set his drawings in 1872.
Oliver has spent many moths researching the legend, studying the comprehensive written archives documenting the walk, looking at the care and welfare of animals in captivity in 1872 and also researching Victorian paintings and photographs of the route, held in local art/museum collections.
Take Me Back To Manchester will be filmed by Cumbrian based film makers Dom Bush and Simon Sylvester. The documentary film Take Me Back To Manchester is commissioned by the Lakes Culture Lakes Ignite programme and will be shown at the Brockhole Visitor Centre in the Lake District from 8-17 May inclusive and also at the Toronto Comic Art Festival in May 2015.
Take Me Back To Manchester will be the first time that Oliver has walked in another’s footsteps – Maharajah and his keeper, Lorenzo Lawrence – and the first time he has attempted an historical approach. The walk in the Spring of 1872 was a media sensation in its day and well documented in local papers; there are also a couple of paintings/drawings recording the event (one in Manchester Museum and another in Manchester Art Gallery).
Following the walk, Oliver will create a comic book Take Me Back To Manchester.
Take Me Back To Manchester, which has been and sponsored by Craghoppers and The Elephant Yard, Kendal, will be showcased at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in October 2015 and some work in progress will be included as part of the LICAF Comic Art Pavilion at the Toronto Comic Art Festival in May 2015.
Oliver will also make 20 large scale drawings that will form the basis of an exhibition at Manchester Museum alongside the skeleton of Maharajah. The exhibition of Take Me Back To Manchester is pencilled for early 2016.
Oliver is an artist who gets his creative energy and inspiration from walking predetermined routes and creating comics as a result. Previous works include the Trains are… Mint series (walks along train lines in and around Manchester ); Sweardown and The Homesick Truant’s Cumbrian Yarn which was published last year. He also designed a few album covers for Elbow (Build a Rocket Boys and The Seldom Seen Kid).
“This is a story that sits somewhere at the back of most Mancunian’s memories without ever really knowing what happened,” says Oliver of the original elephant walk. “There is a lot written about Belle Vue Zoo itself, and Maharajah’s life there, but little to nothing on the actual walk Lorenzo undertook, which makes it ripe to mine for linear narrative.
“The burgeoning relationship between animal trainer and animal, whilst undergoing such an epic trek is interesting to explore in itself, aside from the task of getting to Manchester.
“While aspects of the book will have to fall to fiction, I feel doing the walk myself will give the finished project so much more substance than spending that same time pouring over old newspaper cuttings in libraries. The landscape drawings gathered on route, the empathy of exhaustion, the thrill I’ll have having completed the walk, these will make it a much better project. A book born on the road.”
“Oliver takes comic art into new territory, as we discovered when we worked with him last year on the Homesick Truant’s Cumbrian Yarn,” says Julie Tait, Director of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. “Then, he walked the coast of Cumbria recording his encounters with fabulous drawings and great wit. Now he takes on an even more epic challenge presenting a legendary tale linked closely to the local landscape which is certain to capture the imaginations of people of all ages whether they are into comics or not.
“It promises to be memorable, especially with an elephant involved! and to tell this amazing story in a way only comics can do.”
Take Me Back To Manchester: The Route
8 April: Edinburgh (Waverley Station) – Stow
9 April: Stow – Hawick
10 April: Hawick – Langholm
11 April: Langholm – Carlisle
12 April: Carlisle – Penrith
13 April: Penrith – Kendal
14 April: Kendal – Lancaster
15 April: Lancaster – Preston
16 April: Preston – Bolton
17 April: Bolton – Manchester (Manchester Museum)
As well as the route of the walk, Maharajah and Lorenzo’s overnight stops in inns and stable yards are documented and a few, like the White Hart Inn in Kendal, are still going strong today.
• For the latest news on the 2015 Lakes International Comic Art Festival visit: www.comicartfestival.com
The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. He is currently editor of Star Trek Explorer, published by Titan – his third tour of duty on the title originally titled Star Trek Magazine.
Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Babylon 5 Magazine, and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War” and “Dan Dare”.
He’s the writer of “Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies” for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.