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THE NATURALIST'S HANDBOOK

The botanical and zoological adventures of Alfred Swift.

As a botanical and zoological artist, Alfred Swift is fascinated by the natural world. Growing up in rural, 19th century Holland, he was a quiet child, often alone with his sketchbook or dissecting plant and fruit specimens through a magnifying glass. Now a young scholar, Alfred works as a researcher for the university. His quiet daily life consists of cataloguing and catergorising small insect species and illustrating taxidermied creatures for the university’s historical zoological records. However, on June 26th 1839, Alfred’s life is thrown in a very different direction.

Magnus Finch, the university’s most esteemed explorer and researcher has, unfortunately, been eaten by a bear during his travels through North America. The problem remains that the southern states have not yet been catalogued, and as the only other researcher in the department, Alfred is swept onto a ship and sent on his way.

Two months later, and following a long and arduous journey over sea and land, Alfred finds himself in rural Alabama where he is to begin his studies. Accustomed to his usual organised workspace and stationary subjects, he is understandably alarmed when his first drawing of a fruit tree is rudely interrupted by a sounder of wild boar stampeding through the copse. Likewise, as he attempts to fill his flask from a nearby stream, he is confronted by an angry deer, or when leaping in the fields with his butterfly net, a hawk takes a fancy to his precious catch. These were just the first of many precarious encounters; his primary lessons in the beauty, power and danger found in the wilderness.

Over the next 4 years, Alfred travels alone on foot through several states, and catalogues the species he encounters as best he can. He discovers rare and exotic fruits, brushes with death on several occasions, and comes face to face with magnificent and ferocious beasts. Here, we are lucky enough to read excerpts and view sketches from his handbook, compiled throughout his adventure.

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This collection references Victorian zoological and botanical illustrators such as John James Audubon, Maria Sibylla Merian and Albertus Seba, along with the courageous explorers who ventured into unknown lands in the hope of discovering new and exotic species. The collection also focuses on the Fraktur folk art movement in 19th century America; a movement started by Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania in the late 1700’s.

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O, DIVINA NATURA

As exotic Brazilian species are introduced, a heavenly glow settles over the painted tiles of Portugal.

It is mid-Summer in Europe, and a small Portuguese town lies abandoned to the dust. The streets are deserted of people, the homes and churches derelict and hollow. Tile-clad houses reflect the sunlight against one-another,

creating a hazy passage of translucent light between them, their patterns seared into the shadows. This summer has been hot and dry; no rain for three months and the earth is thirsty. A stifling breeze carries dust throughout the streets and large cracks are appearing in the stonework.

From the parapets, a single monkey’s howl rings out, echoing through the empty spaces. The long, high note hangs in the heavy air, suspended in the silence. The sound fades out, and stillness resumes. Suddenly, it is answered by a second call; a frantic chatter reverberates from the rooftops, and in a flash, a wave of monkeys are sweeping and swinging from every outcrop. Dry branches snap beneath their fingers, and ancient tiles fall shattering to the floor. Ravaging the architecture as they go, the monkeys scatter papaya seeds beneath them as they eat, dripping the rich juices onto the arid earth below. Introduced from Brazil in 1501, these exotic species and tropical fruits were once a marvel and a delicacy. A hundred years on, they have exchanged places with the townsfolk, emigrated to grow sugar cane in the hope of a new life.

There is little escape from the beating sun, but the animals are wily. The thick stone walls of the churches are cool in the shadows, the alcoves creating pockets of crisp air for those seeking respite from the heat. Plants appear to thrive here too, clipped back for many years, now bursting through the cracks in the walls and climbing the intricate

tilework. Birds perch in the sculpted pockets, cats lounge in the shadowy cavities and the wild hares leave their burrows for the feeling of fresh stonework beneath their paws.

Once used as a shire to the Madonna, these alcoves are now a different type of sanctuary. Their dilapidated glory worships and celebrates the beauty and resilience of nature’s divine bounty.

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This collection references the beautiful Azulejo (painted tile) art of Portugal and Brazil, often containing trompe l’oeil scenes within alcoves in the walls. Religious roadside shrines and tributes around the streets of Europe also play a large part, alongside the beautiful Renaissance paintings, altarpieces and triptychs which inspired them. Finally, this work cites the intricate hand painted illusions of mural artist Graham Rust.

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 THE SULTAN’S SOLDIERS

“One day of life as a Tiger is far better than thousand years of living as a Sheep” – Tipu Sultan, 1799

Known as The Tiger of Mysore, Tipu Sultan rules his Indian kingdom with a passion and ferocity only otherwise found in the Tiger’s lair. His throne sits upon two wooden tigers, his weaponry and artillary are artfully sculpted to represent the tiger’s fearsome face, and his soldier’s armour is emblazoned with the bold ‘bubris’ shape of the tiger’s vivid stripes. His love of the Tiger, and his hatred of the British come together in one atonishing piece of ornamentation; a mechanical tiger for his palace, simulating the gruesome death of a British soldier.

It is the late eighteenth century and the Colonial British are invading Tipu’s princely state, storming his palaces and looting his riches. As The British East India Company advances, Tipu Sultan rallies his troops from the furthest corners of his jewelled kingdom. He summons the majestic cats from the jungles, he calls the birds from the skies, and he releases the hounds from the kennels. To prepare them for battle, Tipu adorns his soldiers in the finest armour, beaten from ancient Indian gold, and jewelled with rubies and emeralds. Each helmet is carefully embroidered with ornate stitching, and each back is emblazoned with the tiger’s fearful stripes.

As the British finally break through the city walls, they are met by an army of ‘tigers’, leaping from the parapets and swooping overhead. His soldiers advise Tipu Sultan to escape from secret passages and live to fight another day, but to their astonishment he replies “One day of life as a Tiger is far better than thousand years of living as a Sheep”. Tipu Sultan died defending his capital on 4 May, 1799.

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Citing the works of Rudyard Kipling, the ancient animal fables of the Indian Panchatantra and elements of the true tales of Tipu Sultan, this collection references sections of ancient indian culture. The mechanical ornament, ‘Tipu’s Tiger’, is part of the permanent collection at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The remainder of his riches have been returned to Mysore.

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ALCHEMIE CHINOISERIE

Great powers stir within three ancient Chinese specimen chests, long forgotten in an alchemist’s study.

In an alchemist’s repository in Peking, three wooden specimen chests lie untouched by time. Old kimonos lie discarded around them; ribbons of silk tattered and forgotten. Once a store for rare ingredients, the room has been still for over a century; Until now.

As the lid of each chest slowly prises open, a flurry of moths disperse and rain soft dust around the room. An elegant wing steadily releases itself, and as the lid of the first chest drops back, two golden crowned heads delicately appear, glad to stretch their long graceful necks after all these years locked away. Slowly and cautiously, a pair of glowing green eyes flickers in the shadows, and then another. Two ornate clouded leopards thrust open the lid of their ancient chest and begin a swirling struggle amongst the bones and trinkets of their isolation. The third chest begins to rattle and shake, and a flock of shimmering blue kingfishers struggle against their tethers as they try to burst free. The Tibetan Antelope calmly looks on, rousing herself from a long sleep.

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This collection references the beautiful costumes of the Chinese Opera and the incredible work of artist Ron Pippin.

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CIRCO LIBRE

A travelling animal circus train crashes in rural Peru.

As the doors of their cages spring open, each of the captive animals discovers their new found freedom. They escape into the surrounding villages using the only means they know; the skill from their captivity becomes their vehicle to freedom. To disguise them from the pursuing ringleader, the local villagers adorn the animals with native textiles, tassles and bells.   The tigers gather speed, rolling on a striped hoop whilst the rabbit tumbles inside to keep up. The bears make their getaway with the help of the circus cat, pedalling into the jungle and through the snake’s nest. The ponies gallop to safety, lead through the wilderness by Peruvian parrots.

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This collection is a fusion of inspirations. From antique circus posters featuring ferocious and exotic beasts from distant lands, to wild and untameable South American jungles, to the beautiful images in Alta Moda; Mario Testino’s homage to the traditional dress of his native Peru.

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ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL

Issuing a magesterial call to arms, creatures from all over the globe are reclaiming their sovereignty. 

The coat of arms has long been an emblem of heraldry and pride. Since the threading of the Bayeux Tapestry in the 11th century, wealth and fortune were displayed through symbolic reference. Ferocious beasts were harnessed and chained as trophies of power and wisdom, but centuries later, those chains have been broken. The exotic mystery of the lion and the unicorn, the regal splendour of the stag and the hawk and the humble majesty of the hound and the whippet; these magnificent creatures are fighting back.

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Inspired by ancient coats of arms from Europe and the British empire, this collection also references the work of the great painter Peter Paul Rubens.

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RITUAL WILDERNESS

As each tribe diminishes by the hand of modern civilisation, nature reclaims her spoils.

From the Goroka in Papua New Guinea, to the Karo and Mursi along Ethiopia’s Omo river, each of these indigenous tribes shares a religion; the worship of nature. Each tribe has a deep respect and reverence for the environment they have grown to depend upon, and this devotion is manifested through the creation of elaborate bodily adornment. The flora and fauna of each habitat represents their tribe’s aesthetic: the bright beak of the Hornbill, the bold stripes of the Zebra and the muted pride of the Eland.

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Primary inspiration for this collection was gathered from photographer Jimmy Nelson’s captivating images of endangered tribes during his world-wide exhibition.

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FOLKLORE JAPONICA

Many Japanese myths represent certain creatures as deities, spirits or shape-shifters with magical qualities. These tales often hold moral lessons for the listener; a powerful message of good and evil, not to be tampered with.

Often told through ancient woodcut prints, the stories are passed down through generations. Dreamlike images of cautionary fables; an ancient lesson for those losing their way. The Dancing Fox scarf is inspired by the story of Genkuro, a shape-shifting fox character who rescues Shizuka Gozen, the lover of warrior Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, and brings her safely home. He is rewarded with beautiful, gilded armour, and dances a Kitsune Roppo (fox six step) to show his gratitude. The Silver Hare scarf is inspired by the companion to the moon goddess, Chang’e. The hare offers himself as food to a hungry warrior, wandering alone, by jumping into his fire. This selfless act impresses the great warrior, and he casts a spell to leave a smoky impression of the hare on the moon for the rest of eternity. There is still a belief that a full moon reveals the hare in all his glory. Last but not least, The Takeru Heron scarf honours the legendary warrior prince Yamato Takeru. According to Japanese legend, his soul transformed into a great white bird in death. Legend has it that he still flies the rice fields looking for home.

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This collection was heavily influenced by Japanese folklore, ancient woodcut prints, samurai armour and kimono embroidery.

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