The “frisky” behavior exhibited by European hares in March, the beginning of their mating season, has determined that the allusions “mad as a March hare” and “harebrained” have been with us for a while, far longer than Alice in Wonderland. In the sixteenth century, there are so many references to this seasonal disorder among rabbits, including John Skelton’s “as merry as a March hare” in Magnyfycence (1520) and John Heywood’s “as mad as a March hare” in the first edition of his Proverbs (1546) that it seems well-established in the English language and culture. So now it’s March, almost mid-March, and it’s definitely time for some March hares.
My search for some real long-legged European hares brought me to a beautiful book by Christine Gregory, Brown Hares in the Derbyshire Dales (2010), which contains some stunning photographs of hares in their element, in every season. Gregory seems to pursue her subjects with a singular intensity, with riveting results.
A Hare in March by Christine Gregory, from Brown Hares in the Derbyshire Dales.
In the past, visual depictions of hares came in a variety of forms: different types of cards issued over the centuries, fables and stories, the decorative arts. They also seem to be among the most anthropomorphic of animals (especially March Hares). There are of course many images of hares in hunting scenes in the medieval and early modern eras, but almost as many in “turning the tables”/ world-turned-upside-down scenes in which hares are the hunters rather than the prey. I could focus an entire post on just this sub-genre, but I’ll just include one such scene today: The Hunter Caught by the Hares, a Georg Penz print from a Hans Sachs broadside (circa 1534-35) in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Cartophilic hares appear in both the early modern and modern eras, beginning with this “nine of hares” card, from a deck of 72 round cards engraved by the “Master PW’ of Cologne around 1500. Rather than hearts and spades, the deck is organized into suites of roses, columbines, carnations, parrots and hares. A more dandified hare appears on a cigarette card from many centuries later.
The Nine of Hares, Master PW of Cologne, circa 1500, Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Cigarette card, 1920s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century hares take all forms: both straightforward and anthropomorphic representations, political caricatures, decorative motifs, and from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, a steady succession of illustrations from children’s’ books. The most acclaimed graphic designers and illustrators all have their hares, including Christopher Dresser, Hugh M. Eaton, and Walter Crane.
A European hare from Samuel Griswold’s Pictorial Geography of the World (1849), A “grotesque dado-rail, being formed of the hare, which is especially suited to a dining room” by Christopher Dresser (1876),NYPL Digital Gallery, a Chelsea tile by William Frend De Morgan, c. 1873-76, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and the March cover of Frank Leslie’s Popular-Monthly.
Crane’s March Hare, who first appeared in the 1865 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is my favorite, and more natural (and Arts & Craftsish) hares appear in his 1887 edition of Aesops Fables. Jessie Wilcox Smith’s March Hare and Mat Hatter appear in a domestic scene in her 1915 edition.
Illustrations from Walter Crane (1865 & 1887) and Jessie Wilcox Smith (1915), NYPL Digital Gallery.
There is a large trace (or drove, there seem to be quite a few applicable collective nouns) of contemporary hares from which to choose, but I finally settled on the two below: Bruce Gernand’s 2004 etching, Hare in Transit, an updated version of the Tortoise and the Hare, and Julia Cassels’ very vertical Mad March Hare.