The Legacy of Joy Adamson

Joy Adamson and leopardNational Museums of Kenya

Illustrator, conservationist and author Joy Adamson is internationally known for her contribution to Kenya’s natural and cultural heritage. Adamson was a colorful, if at times controversial, character whose work continues to affect how people view conservation. Much of her work is immortalized not only in her illustrations, but in her books and films, which have been pivotal in preserving the diversity and richness of Kenya’s people and nature.

The legacy of Joy Adamson

Because of Adamson’s inspirational efforts, people around the world now consider how they can preserve their own cultural and natural heritage. As you view this exhibit or visit the Joy Adamson Gallery at the Nairobi National Museum, consider what you might do to preserve your own environment.

This exhibit showcasing copies of Adamson’s watercolor paintings is a celebration, not only of the illustrator and conservationist herself, but also the diversity and robustness of Kenya’s culture and natural environment.

Portrait of Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

From Opava to Kenya

Adamson was born on 20th January 1910 to a wealthy family in Troppau, Silesia, Austria-Hungary (now Opava, Czech Republic). She was named Friederike Victoria Gessner. Her parents divorced when she was 10 years old and she then lived with her grandmother, who mentored her.


Adamson was a creative young teen. She attended the Slade School of Art in London and involved herself in pottery and photography. She also had dreams of becoming a concert pianist, but her hands were too small, which discouraged her from pursuing music. She studied psychoanalysis, archaeology and medicine, but never sat for examinations in those subjects.

Acokanthera oppositifolia (Lam) Codd - Apocynaceae by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Artistic influences

Adamson’s artistic influences stem from different sources. Her mother was a self-taught artist who may have motivated her to pursue art. Her second husband, Peter Bally, encouraged her to make beautiful illustrations. Adamson was so discouraged by her first attempt that she tore up the artwork. Bally pieced it back together and encouraged her to continue. This later paid dividends as her botanical illustrations became world renowned for their careful recreation of details and were subsequently used as references in botanical studies.

Joy and George AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya


Adamson married three times in the span of eight years. Her first marriage was to a Jewish Austrian, Viktor von Klarwill, in 1935. Viktor sent her to Africa to find a safe place for both of them to escape the persecution of Jews during World War II. Later, she met and married a Swiss botanist, Peter Bally, who gave her the nickname ‘Joy’. She met her third husband George Adamson, a British game warden in Kenya, while on safari. They married in 1943.

Helichrysum by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya


Adamson is best known as a conservationist, gaining international fame for her work with Elsa the lion. Adamson’s interest in conservation can be traced back to her early life. She came from a family of hunters, but was put off by hunting.

Two of her husbands, Peter Bally and George Adamson, were immersed in the scientific study of plants and conservation. Her pioneering work in the field of conservation brought issues to the world’s attention.

Elsa the Lioness by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Environmental activism and education

Adamson was the founder of the World Wildlife Fund and the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal. She was an early activist in the movement to boycott clothing made from animal fur. She established links with the East African Wild Animal Society, which was formed in 1962 and was the precursor to the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya. Her efforts led to the creation of Kenya’s first wildlife reserves. When, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, George and Joy Adamson released some of the animals they had raised back into the wild, it was an innovative conservation practice.

Painting of a leopard by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Today the release of animals born and/or raised in captivity, in zoos or private reserves, into the wild, (often called restocking) has become a common practice. Adamson’s work has stimulated environmental education in schools. The current work being done by Elsamere Conservation Trust is a continuation of what Adamson started in environmental conservation and education. She set out to change the way in which people look at the planet and the creatures who share it with us.

For Adamson, what started as a simple trip to Africa to see Kenya in 1935 turned out to be a lifelong sojourn that continues to impact the country’s wildlife conservation efforts after her demise.

Ndorobo Bride by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Snapshots of Kenya's communities

In 1945, for her own leisure, Adamson began painting the men and women from different Kenyan communities. The first paintings were experiments as she had never done portraits before. Adamson’s watercolour illustrations are vivid and detailed, immortalizing those that she encountered.

Following her early success in portraiture, she was commissioned by the British colonial government to document the peoples of Kenya. She completed 132 portraits in slightly over one year. After the 1st commission, she continued to paint the peoples of Kenya wearing their colourful regalia and jewelry, completing a total of 580 paintings that were handed over to the National Museums of Kenya for posterity.

Turkana Chief's Headdress by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Adamson’s paintings were published in 1975 in the book, The Peoples of Kenya, which remains a useful resource for anthropologists and others who seek information about Kenya’s traditional heritage. The collection contains portraits and full-length paintings depicting the cultural heritage of the different peoples of Kenya. They foster appreciation and understanding for the diverse cultural practices and their functions, as well as recording the regalia, jewelry, weapons and instruments used.

Somali Girl by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Written on each painting is the information recorded by Adamson herself, detailing the name of each individual, his or her community, and the location where the painting was done. Some illustrations have more or less information than others, such as the date the painting was done.

Aloe sp. by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Botanical paintings

Adamson accompanied her second husband, botanist Peter Bally, in his travels through Kenya, studying the plant life. She became an accomplished illustrator, specializing in collecting and painting Kenyan wildflowers and other plants. She completed 400 botanical illustrations that won her awards, international exhibitions and several publications.

Nymphaea nouchali Burn. f. - Nymphaeaceae by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The original paintings are archived at the headquarters of the National Museums of Kenya. Adamson’s botanical paintings represent each of Kenya’s eight botanical regions and include herbs, shrubs, trees and other plants. Her attention to detail captured critical aspects of the plants, making them useful to researchers in plant identification.

Devil Firefish, Pterois Volitans by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Marine and wildlife paintings

It is no surprise that Adamson’s illustrations include paintings of the larger animals of Kenya, given her love for her pet lions and cheetahs.

Moorish idol by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Not much is known, however, about Adamson’s reasons for painting marine animals. This small collection is very typical of Adamson in its use of vivid colors and attention to detail.

Elsa the Lioness by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Elsa the lioness

Elsa was the stimulus for the conservation efforts of Joy and George Adamson. In 1956 George, who was a game warden in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, was forced to shoot and kill an attacking lion. He discovered that the dead lion had three cubs, which was probably why she attacked. George took the cubs home to save their lives. The bigger two cubs were eventually sent to a Rotterdam zoo.

The cub that George Adamson kept was named Elsa, and became a part of the Adamson’s family. After some time, the couple decided to set Elsa free, but realized they had to teach her survival skills. They spent many months training Elsa to hunt and to survive on her own, recording their activities and Elsa’s responses. The idea of releasing her back into the wild was successful. Elsa thrived on her own and soon had a litter of cubs.

Joy used her notes and George’s journals to tell the story of Elsa in a book called Born Free, published in 1960. The book became a bestseller that put the spotlight on the need to conserve African wildlife.

Elsa the Lioness by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The methods developed by the Adamsons to release or re-release animals into their habitats became the model for many conservation efforts around the world and sparked the creation of Kenya’s national parks. Elsa died in January 1961 from disease resulting from a tick bite.

Tharaka Girl by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Publications by and about Joy Adamson

Adamson wrote several books, including Born Free, which chronicles the life of Elsa the lion. Published in 1960 by Harvill Press, the book was an instant bestseller, topping the New York Times Bestseller List for 13 weeks. It has since been translated into over 30 languages. A movie and an American television show, both bearing the name Born Free, have been seen in many places around the world.

The book Born Free was followed by Living Free, which is about Elsa as a mother to her cubs, and Forever Free, which tells of the release of the cubs Jespah, Gopa, and Little Elsa into the wild. Adamson shared her book and film proceeds with various conservation projects.

Albizia gumifera by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya


- Born Free (1960)
- Elsa: The Story of a Lioness(1961)
- Living Free: The story of Elsa and her cubs(1961)
- Forever Free: Elsa's Pride (1962)
- The Spotted Sphinx (1969)
- Pippa: The Cheetah and her Cubs (1970)
- Joy Adamson's Africa (1972)
- Pippa's Challenge (1972)
- Peoples of Kenya (1975)
- The Searching Spirit: Joy Adamson's Autobiography.(1978)
- Queen of Shaba: The Story of an African Leopard
- Friends from the Forest (1980)

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curators:
Immelda Kithuka,

Mercy Gakii,
Cultural Expert,
Cultural Heritage Department.

Photography and Creative Direction:
Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini.
Gibs Photography

The National Museums of Kenya would like to thank the following people for their contribution to this exhibit:

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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