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23 April 2021

Pinning the tail on the donkey: the history of two Omersa animals- Part I of II

The recent delivery of two intriguing objects to the Leather Conservation Centre served to instantaneously bring a smile to our faces. A quirky kangaroo and a dandy donkey had arrived in the lab for conservation treatment to stabilise areas which, in their current state, left them looking a little downtrodden. Chiefly these were areas of wear which left several components vulnerable to further loss and damage: ears, eyes, tails etc.


Omersa kangaroo prior to conservation treatment.


Omersa donkey prior to conservation treatment.


The animals quickly became popular among the team and I was very excited to start their treatment, which will be detailed in part II. Here, we will begin with a brief history of the new characters now hosted by the LCC.


History of Omersa

The animals were manufactured by Omersa, a company specialising in the production of statement leather animal houseware. Omersa are still active today and their animals can be found in the foyers of many a grand hotel or have been known to spend their time with well-known Omersa enthusiasts.


Poet laureate John Betjeman and actress Ingrid Berman with their Omersa pigs.


The first proto-Omersa animal originated in 1927, when a Liberty’s of London leatherworker, ‘Old Bill’, decided to make use of their scrap leather and the Omersa pig we know today came to life! Liberty’s of London decided to sell the pigs and very quickly they became a firm favourite of Liberty’s shoppers. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Omersa as a company was properly established. In 1955, Naval Officer Dimitri and his wife Inge Omersa moved to England from Yugoslavia, where Dimitri had previously been held as a political prisoner for 10 years under Tito. Once settled in Hertfordshire, Dimitri began working in the leather trade and it was here that he met Old Bill. As can perhaps be deduced from his nickname, Old Bill was getting on and was preparing for retirement. This retirement meant an end to the now much loved Liberty’s pigs and not wishing to leave a pig-shaped hole in the hearts of anyone, Dimitri agreed to take over this business and continue production for Liberty’s. Not before long, Dimitri began to create a menagerie of new animals, such as elephants, donkeys and rhinos, each one as charming as the last. Despite Liberty’s initial reservation toward the new additions, especially the rhino, the British people fell in love and soon the new kids became some of Omersa’s most distinctive pieces. Not long after, the animals had their own British Invasion moment across the pond and gained a loyal following overseas.


Dimitri Omersa in his studio.


During this time, in 1963, the animals were embossed with ‘LIBERTY OF LONDON’ under the ear, however as the market expanded to North America this stopped. This is helpful here as it can aid with providing provenance for our donkey and kangaroo. Investigation under the ear of the donkey revealed the distinctive ‘LIBERTY OF LONDON’ embossed mark, signifying this donkey as a very early example!

Today the manufacture of modern Omersa animals is carried out by leather artisans in Lincolnshire, employing the same techniques used on the original Omersa animals. Today, the animals are constructed from chrome-tanned[1] bovine leather over a metal armature with wood wool stuffing.


Process of pattern cutting, stitching, staining and fastening used to create modern Omersa animals in Lincolnshire.


Now that we are familiar with construction, history and significance of our kangaroo and donkey, read more here where we delve into the donkey’s conservation and how a conservator approaches pinning the tail on the donkey.

[1] Method of tanning skins using chromium salts as the tanning agent.

The Leather Conservation Centre
Grosvenor Chambers
Grosvenor Centre
Union Street

01604 719766