Born Free Forever, Newcastle

On 4 April 2022, Drawing for the Planet (DftP) partner, international wildlife charity Born Free launched Born Free Forever exhibition which displays 25 bronze lion sculptures in Exhibition Park, Newcastle until 30 June: 

"in honour of what would have been the 100th Birthday year of Bill Travers MBE, we are celebrating our fearless Co-Founder’s legacy by designating 2022 our 'Year of the Lion'." 

Bill Travers wife, film star Virginia McKenna OBE and their son Will Travers OBE, also Born Free Co-Founders, were joined by Thea Caine a Born Free Junior Ambassador. Artist and DftP Founder, Jane Lee McCracken was invited to deliver a Biro drawing workshop of the lion sculptures to Thea's class from Burnopfield Primary, County Durham.

Images courtesy of Born Free: (top) Will Travers OBE, Virginia McKenna OBE, Thea Caine and Jane Lee McCracken; (above) Will Travers OBE and Virginia McKenna OBE

The aim of the exhibition which displays the stunning life-size sculptures created by world renowned artists Gillie and Marc Artis to raise awareness and funds for lions now listed by the IUCN Red List as vulnerable with just 20,000 remaining in the wild. 

An iconic species ingrained in human culture, lions have been depicted in art for millennia, from the paintings in Chauvet Cave, France, mosaics from Pompeii, to famous artists including Jan Brueghel, Rembrandt and Henri Rousseau. Yet this celebrated species is just thirty years from extinction.


Images top: Chauvet Cave, Lion and Leopard Pompeii, National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Lion Lying Down Rembrandt c1648-1650; bottom: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden Jan Brueghel 1615, La Bohémienne endormie Henri Rousseau 1897, The Look Out Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899)

In 1966 actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, born in Newcastle, starred in the globally acclaimed film Born Free recounting the life of legendary lioness Elsa, an orphaned cub adopted by Kenyan conservationists Joy and George Adamson, who returned Elsa to the wild. The making of Born Free and other wildlife films including 1969 film An Elephant Called Slowly starring elephant calf, Pole Pole, and the plight of the wildlife they encountered moved Virginia and Bill to found their charity Born Free.


Image courtesy of Born Free: Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers  

"When filming was over, Pole Pole was gifted to London Zoo by the Kenyan government. Virginia and Bill did everything they could to prevent this, but Pole Pole was sent to London. In 1982, Virginia and Bill went to visit Pole Pole at the zoo. Pole Pole, in clear distress, remembered Virginia and Bill and stretched out her trunk to reach them. Virginia and Bill launched a campaign to give Pole Pole a better life but in 1983, aged 16, Pole Pole died. Determined that her death would not be in vain, in 1984, Virginia, Bill and their eldest son Will launched Zoo Check – the charity that has evolved into Born Free." Born Free

Image courtesy Born Free: Virginia McKenna

During the exhibition launch Born Free's Education Officer, Charlie Baker spoke to the children about the plight of lions and the individual lions the sculptures represent, including Black, a lion cub rescued from a Bulgarian circus by Born Free.

Jane was thrilled to meet inspirational wildlife advocate Thea and deliver her workshop to Thea's class who were given the opportunity to create Biro drawings of the lion sculptures. She emphasised that their drawings could raise awareness of the threats to lions and could inspire others to help in their conservation. Jane was impressed by the children's amazing creations. 


Image courtesy Born Free: Charlie Baker with Jane Lee McCracken

Jane has raised funds for and worked in partnership with Born Free since 2014, including working closely with Charlie and Born Free's Head of Education, Laura Gosset, on Jane's Where Did All the Animals Go? art and environmental education project and 2021 exhibition now on permanent display at the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle. Jane said:

"It was a huge honour to attend the launch of this extremely important and breathtaking exhibition and meet the amazing Born Free Team in person. When I arrived and saw Elsa standing on top of a 4 x 4, I was moved to tears. Elsa, Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers hold a place of great affection in many people's hearts and memories, including my own. Virginia is a true inspiration and it was a privilege to hear her impassioned words about the plight of lions and their rightful place to roam free in the wild."

Image courtesy Born Free: Jane Lee McCracken with bronze sculptures Virginia and Bill


A selection of the children's drawings will be featured in DftP's Wild Postcard Gallery 2022 soon. For more information about the event or to donate to conserve lions please visit Born Free here.  


Thea Caine and Jane Lee McCracken

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