Conservationist Joy Adamson

Joy Adamson (1910–1980) was a conservationist, illustrator and author. Much of her work is immortalized in her illustrations, books, and films, which have been pivotal in preserving the diversity and richness of Kenya’s people and nature.

Portrait of Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

At the National Museum of Kenya, an exhibition chronicles the work that won Joy international acclaim. Joy Adamson was a colorful if, at times, controversial character whose work continues to affect how people view conservation.

A Wildlife Conservationist

In 1956, Joy Adamson’s husband George, then a game warden in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, was forced to kill an attacking lion. He discovered that the dead lion had three cubs, and he took them home to save their lives. The bigger two cubs were sent to a zoo.

The remaining cub, Elsa, became part of the family. After some time, Joy and George decided to set Elsa free. As a result of months of training from her adoptive parents, Elsa’s release back into the wild was successful. 

Born Free

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. Joy published two more books about Elsa: Living Free and Forever Free.

George Adamson

Joy met her third husband, George Adamson, a British game warden in Kenya, while on safari. They married in 1943. They separated in the 1970s, but they never divorced. Bandits murdered George on August 20, 1989, in Tana-River in Kora National Park.

Elsa Conservation Trust

The Adamson’s dedicated their lives to wildlife conservation and education. Profits they made from books or films about their efforts were put into a charity—now called the Elsa Conservation Trust. This trust has donated millions of dollars to wildlife education and conservation projects.

A Model for Conservation

The methods developed by the Adamson's to release or re-release Elsa and other animals into their habitats became the model for many conservation efforts around the world. It also sparked the creation of Kenya’s national parks. 

A Painter of Kenya’s People

In 1945, Adamson began painting people from different Kenyan communities. The first paintings were experiments, as she had never done portraits before. The work was successful and she was commissioned by the British colonial government to document the 20 Cultures of the peoples of Kenya threatened to extinction.

She completed 132 portraits in slightly over one year. After the commission, she continued to paint the peoples of Kenya wearing cultural regalia and jewelry, completing 580 paintings.

“Joy” Friederike Victoria Gessner

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

A European in Africa

Joy Adamson’s first marriage was to Viktor von Klarwill, a Jewish Austrian, 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.

The Peoples of Kenya

Joy’s paintings were published in The Peoples of Kenya in 1975. The book is a collection of portraits and full-length paintings depicting the cultural heritage of peoples of Kenya. Anthropologists and others who seek information about Kenya’s traditional heritage use the book as a resource. 

Regalia, Jewellery, Weapons, and Instruments

Joy Adamson’s portraits of Kenyans foster appreciation and understanding for their diverse cultural practices and their functions. They also act as a record of the regalia, jewellery, weapons and instruments used. 

580 Portraits

Joy’s paintings immortalize their subjects. On each painting, Joy detailed the name of each individual, his or her community, the location where the painting was done, and the date of the sitting.

A Painter of Botany

Joy 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 300 botanical illustrations that won her awards, international exhibitions, and several publications. Joy Adamson’s original paintings are archived at the headquarters at the National Museums of Kenya. 

Flowers of Kenya

Joy’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.

Peter Bally

Joy was so discouraged by her first drawing attempts that she tore them up. Her second husband, Peter Bally, pieced her art back together and encouraged her to continue. Joy’s botanical illustrations became world renowned and have been used as references in botanical studies. 

A Painter of Marine Life

Because of Joy Adamson’s lifelong dedication to conservation of the big cats of Africa, one would expect that her illustrations include paintings of her pets and the larger animals of Kenya.

But you might be surprised to find in the National Museum of Kenya, a small collection of Joy’s illustrations of marine life. They are typical of her work in their use of vivid colours and attention to detail.

Marine Life Illustrations

This illustration of a Devil Firefish, Pterois Volitans, is typical of the illustrations of marine life made by Adamson. You might not want to come across a Devil Firefish in real life—it has a venomous fin spine that is capable of inflicting painful wounds when stepped on. 

Artistic Influences

Joy was a creative young teen. She attended the Slade School of Art in London. Her 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 illustrations.

Artistic Style

Part of the Joy Adamson collection, this painting depicts the fish Rhinecanthus aculeatus, or the Lagoon Triggerfish. The illustration is typical of Joy’s artistic style; its colours are vivid, and it is meticulously detailed.

Last Years on the Shaba Reserve

Joy Adamson’s pioneering work in the field of conservation brought issues to the world’s attention. She helped found the World Wildlife Fund, and she was an early activist in the movement to boycott clothing made from animal fur.

She established links with East African Wild Animal Society, the precursor to the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya. Her efforts led to the creation of Kenya’s first wildlife reserves. In fact, Joy spent the last years of her life on the Shaba National Reserve.

In Joy Adamson’s Own Words

Joy once said about her work: “I not only want to breed animals under natural conditions so that they will survive after they have become endangered by man's influence...I also want to learn from them where man can play a more constructive part in the balance of nature—and thus survive himself.”

Pippa the Cheetah

After her success with Elsa and lions, Joy Adamson turned her attention to cheetahs and leopards. She adopted a cheetah cub, Pippa, in the late 1960s. Adamson rehabilitated Pippa and watched over the growth of Pippa’s cubs. Adamson later narrated her record of these activities in two books.

Penny the Leopard

Joy Adamson’s book Queen of Shaba documents the three years she spent raising and rehabilitating Penny, a female leopard cub, on the Shaba National Reserve. The book was published after her death in 1980.

An Unexpected Passing

On January 3, 1980, a disgruntled employee murdered Joy Adamson on the Shaba National Reserve. At Joy’s funeral, George Adamson scattered her ashes on the graves of the cheetah Pippa and the lioness Elsa and promised to carry on his wife's work.

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