Saturday 30 May 2015

Cabinet of Curiosities: Taxidermy by Sarah Gristwood

Other people have friends who take up tennis or tatting. I have friends who take up taxidermy. (Also skull collection: ‘Can I call you back? I’m beheading a badger’, has to be one of the best can’t-talk-now lines in history.) Drop in on Jane for coffee, and you find the emptied skin of a magpie draped over the kitchen tap to dry, the way a tea towel might be. An open taxidermy supply catalogue advertises plastic eyes and false tongues, each modelled for the species, precisely.

Sarah's stuffed jay
Not that I have a problem with that - on the contrary, the stuffed jay she gave me is one of my favourite possessions. The first thing any taxidermist today is keen to tell you is that they are using creatures which died naturally. Roadkill, birds brought in wounded to the local vet. Or, in the case of some professionals, beloved pets whose owners can’t quite bear to say goodbye.

Of course it wasn’t always that way, as the heads on the wall of any country house can testify. But then the form has gone through a lot of changes, since some stuffed rarity was first part of any collector’s cabinet of curiosities. The oldest piece of taxidermy in existence is said to be the crocodile suspended from the roof of a church in Lombardy, and documented as having been taken down (later found stored in the roof) in 1534. The horse of Sweden’s king Gustav Adolphus, shot from under him in the Thirty Years War, and skinned and mounted as a trophy by his German enemies, can still be seen today.

The first big boost for European taxidermy came from the explorations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the pressure was on to find a way of proving to those back home just how strange far flung nature could be, (Or trying to prove - when the skin and a sketch of a duck billed platypus was sent back from Australia in 1798, it was dismissed as a hoax.) Specimens could be sent home preserved in alcohol, to be skinned, cleaned, and filled with some kind of aromatic packing - herbs, hops, tobacco; later much improved with an arsenic soap - meant to keep the insects away.

What was at first the preserve of the scientific and the wealthy soon became a museum staple: Bullock’s Museum in London at the start of the nineteenth century advertised ‘the Lofty Giraffe, the Lion, the Elephant . . . as ranging in their native wilds’. When taxidermist John Gould put up twenty four cases of humming birds as rival attraction to the Great Exhibition he got 75,000 visitors. But by then taxidermy was moving on in several different ways.

New techniques - such as the creation of moulds onto which the skin could be arranged, in whatever pose - allowed more naturalistic museum display. This, in the hands of great taxidermists like Rowland Ward, was the start of the dioramas on which many of us grew up (and in England places like the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent, the Natural History Museum at Tring still show their collections with pride; while the National Museum of Scotland is rare in still having a working department of taxidermy). In America Carl Akeley created ‘Jumbo’ and ‘the Feejee mermaid’ for the great showman P.T. Barnard before moving on to the American Museum of Natural History.
Hares in a bookshop in Stamford
Naturalism, however, was never the goal of a whole other strand of Victorian taxidermy. A young and impressionable Walter Potter had seen Hermann Ploucquet’s anthropomorphic displays at the Great Exhibition and was struck all of a heap. Potter’s most famous tableau showed the death of Cock Robin. Guinea pigs playing cricket, kittens at a tea party - nothing was too bizarre for his imagination, and children were still revelling in his creations long after his death in 1918.

Much about the Victorian sensibility - and the Victorian fetishism of death - seems strange to us today. But perhaps it was yet another strand of Victorian and early twentieth century taxidermy that did most to dismiss the form from fashion by the latter part of the last century. That was the huge number of heads collected by ‘big game hunters’; shot without qualm and displayed without artistry. Taxidermy begun itself to look like a relic of the past; while the spread of the motion picture camera meant a Western public could see those same exotic beasts, not framed in a case, but running free.

(That said, of course, fashion never changes completely - or not in my home town anyway. When I was a child in Dover, the pride of the town museum was a stuffed polar bear, donated by the relatives of an Arctic explorer as recently as 1960. It stood in the entrance, just where mothers used to park the pram, sometimes with the baby still inside it. So the child awoke and looked up into the snarling jaws of this rearing monster, claws outstretched . . . Explains a lot about those of us from Dover, actually.)

But in the last years, there has been a widespread resurgence in the popularity of taxidermy - and in the creativity with which it is used. The original shock value of the stuffed birds swirling around above the model’s head, in a fantastical piece of Alexander McQueen millinery from 2001, has dwindled until a dusty decades old bison’s head seems to leer down at you from the wall of every fashionable bar, every house interior in a magazine spread.

At the Hayward Gallery in 2012, artist David Shrigley’s taxidermied Jack Russell held up a placard reading ‘I’m Dead’. Damien Hirst, anybody? As the art critic Brian Sewell said, ‘there may well be more art in a stuffed pike than a dead sheep’; while artist and animal activist Angela Singer makes a point with her use of vintage taxidermy.

A recent TV documentary, All Creatures Great and Stuffed, went straight for the shock horror stories - the man who spreadeagled the corpses of cats, and tried to make them fly. But the work of someone like artist Polly Morgan seems both beautiful and significant to me. A handful of taxidermy quail chicks bursting out of a telephone receiver, obviously in mid-squawk. A taxidermy fox with a silicone octopus bursting out from its belly, Alien-style; the octopus itself being ‘pollinated’ by stuffed wrens. Yes, in a way it’s sinister; but so is nature, actually; Morgan was first inspired by the decaying corpses she saw on a trip to the Serengeti. She like others argues against any idea of disrespect to the animal. ‘It’s a form of recycling as far as I can see.’

I think it’s the respect that for me is the key - the reason it seems strange to me to shrink from taxidermy, while eating meat and wearing leather shoes. The reason I’d be repulsed by an umbrella stand made from an elephant’s foot, while still cherishing my jay . . . All right, so it’s a sliding scale - those anthropomorphising pieces of Walter Potter’s do seem strange to me. But when taxidermy is done right, it is a gesture of rage against the dying of the light, isn’t it, really?

Stuffed crocodile belonging to History Girl Clare Mulley


Clare Mulley said...

Mine is certainly a gesture of rage against the dying light Sarah, how well put. I shall tell it.

Leslie Wilson said...

I agree with you - the ethics are far from straightforward. We went to stay overnight once in a hostelry in Alsace that was full of dressed up stuffed animals and upstairs, in a murky passageway, a wild boar seemed to be bursting through the wall. Very alarming. The butter was rancid at breakfast; perhaps it came from a stuffed cow?
I loved the hares! And Clare: your stuffed croc fills me with envy!

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