Taxidermy is the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of animals for display. It became a popular part of interior design and décor in the Victorian era and today, it still receives the same amusement as it once did.
Polly Morgan, a taxidermist and sculpture, says that a lot of people “turned against taxidermy” in recent years. She goes on to mention that this is due to a lack of understanding the art and that people are now starting to embrace the skills again.
Below are a few examples of taxidermy which in today's modern world do still exist in certain places including offices and homes, usually a portrayal of wealth and style.
The Great Exhibition:
In the late 19th century, a style known as Anthropomorphic taxidermy became popular; stuffed animals were dressed in a way that resembled the garments of people and were also displayed as if interacting in human activities. An early example of this form of taxidermy was displayed by Herman Ploucquet from Stuttgart, Germany, at the Great Exhibition, otherwise known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition that took place in Hyde Park, London from 1st May to 11th October 1851.
The Great Exhibition was organised by Henry Cole and prince Albert (husband of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria). Many famous people of the time attended this exhibition, including Charles Darwin, Samuel Colt, members of the Orleanist Royal Family and the writers Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Elliot and Alfred Tennyson.
The Great Exhibition, 1851
The English taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918) was the best-known practitioner in this genre. He became famous as an icon of Victorian eccentricity with his most famous work being The Death and Burial of Cock Robin. His museum in Bramber, Sussex, included the most peculiar, yet uniquely brilliant taxidermy, ranging from bizarrely deformed animals such as multi-legged kittens to simulations of human situations, for example, a classroom of rabbits and a kitten tea party. His museum was incredibly popular that an extension was built on a platform at Bramber railway station. However, this museum was later closed in the '70s, although in 2010, many of Potter's works were exhibited by the artist Sir Peter Blake at London's 'Museum of Everything'.
“The subsequent dispersal of Potter's works has meant the loss of a truly unique Victorian legacy” says Pat Morris, writer of a Walter Potter biography.
Museum of Everything
Tel: +44 (0)20 7960 4200
I visited the 'Museum of Everything' to expand my knowledge on the topic and also to understand the amusement behind the “art” (as they say) of the eccentric taxidermy.
However, with limited stuffed animals on display, (these being the non-anthropomorphic one's) I was unable to bring any evidence of my trip to the museum home. You may be thinking, 'well why not just snap what's there anyway?'
That's about the only picture I was allowed to take.
So as I did not wish to die anytime soon, I hate to inform you that I did not take the risk of taking any pictures. Sorry guys!
However, lucky for me, with Potter's very own website, I was able to bring his art to me, which is something I can share with you without having a 'death penalty' on my conscience.
And I must put forth, to my surprise, I did enjoy viewing this 'Victorian whimsy' of a village school featuring 48 little rabbits writing on tiny slates, kitty marriages and many more peculiarly interesting human situations.
The rabbits village school, 1888
Dr Pat Morris, an expert in the history of taxidermy, told the Today programme's Evan Davis, “Queen Victoria used to look at this sort of stuff and be amused by it.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-24201830)
People usually liked taxidermy because it was a way to keep their dead animals still visible to them.
However, “[...] eighteenth-century naturalists hardly encouraged individuals to choose taxidermy as a way to remember their pets. Before the late eighteenth century, if domestic creatures were stuffed, the motive […] was to preserve their exotic strangeness.” (http://www.ravishingbeasts.com/some-thoughts-about-stuffed-pe/)
what I also found interesting from the museum was a bizarre selection of taxidermy furniture and jewellery among other morbid objects. As mentioned in another blog, “mourning jewellery first became popular with the passing of Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. Victoria was so devastated by his death, she dressed in mourning clothes for the remainder of her life.”
This act of wearing mourning jewellery with the hair or nail clippings of the deceased inside lockets or brooches served for three main functions in the Victorian era:
- It was an outward manifestation that the person had not been forgotten.
- It was a memento; a reminder to the living of the inevitability of death
- It was a status symbol
Locks of hair set neatly inside a brooch to be worn
Now you may be thinking, how does this relate to taxidermy?
Well, after the morbid mourning jewellery was brought into Victorian fashion, it wasn't long until taxidermists decided to make jewellery relative to their art too. Yes I'm talking dead animal parts in jewellery.
Rats were specifically used in this morbid jewellery, ranging from rat head and tail necklaces, rat paw earrings and it gets worse... a rat heart pendant.
If you're thinking, who would wear such horrific jewellery? Well we may have revolutionised our fashion today, though we still do have a similar fashion to that of the Victorians, with the higher class in today's England wearing what is portrayed to be classy and fashionable: a fox scarf with the head and tail still attached.
It seems as if we have become so obsessed with the idea of dead animals around us, what with surrounding ourselves with taxidermy on our walls for decoration and wearing dead animals with the features still there. It's a bit bizarre really that we would find this notion of the dead animal intriguing. Why is it that Emily Bronte constantly refers to dead animals in Wuthering Heights? Why the interest in mentioning something that should be displeasing to hear? Why is it that we are interested in this sort of thing?
Bronte often uses animal imagery as a metaphor in order to stress the death of morals in mankind. Linton is described as a”chicken” (Wuthering Heights, 207), Hareton a “dog” (310), Heathcliff a “mad dog” (162) and a “savage beast” (169).
Dogs pay a significant role in this novel as they are present in many major scenes. One main scene is where Heathcliff uses a handkerchief to hang the dog by his neck on a bridle hook. This ignorance of animal cruelty seems to be common in the Victorian era with many satisfied with their fur fashion regardless of what cruelty the animal they are wearing felt. Also the the kittens that are mistaken for dead rabbits shows ignorance and a lack of care for the poor rabbits.
A blogger states: “Wuthering Heights is so dismal, dark and dead animals. It looks like no one cleans in that place.”
Taxidermy and Fashion:
Taxidermy has been and always will be a representation of the rich folk, with the more extravagant stuffed animals depicting more wealth. Think of Mr Burns, for example, from the The Simpsons who has a ginormous stuffed bear in his office, who we presume to be the richest man in the cartoon.
If garments of real animal fur are associated with wealth, then it is likely that these higher class citizens would also hold real fur accessories: fur bags, purses, jewellery, bottle covers even.
A necklace with a stuffed duck, embellished with grey pearls.
Finally, I will end with my opinion on taxidermy. As disturbing as this may sound to some, I do enjoy researching Potter's various works on animal human situations – his rabbit school, a personal favourite of mine, however I must stress, I do not agree with intentionally harming or killing animals for the purpose of making art or clothing.
Potter's works are unique, they are a different form of art all together, a result of intelligent creativity and I will continue to gain more insight on the subject for my own pleasure, though the morbid rat feature/ organ jewellery is where I draw the line. It's one thing to enjoy viewing dead animals, though to be amused by gruesome rat paws and tails situated upon your neck or dangling from your ears, or on your finger is another kind of dreadful.
So is taxidermy an art? I believe it is.
Below is a video on Walter Potter if you'd like to find out more:
… And to finish off, here is a final image of a squirrel dressed as Queen Victoria.
Wakeham, P. Taxidermic Signs: Reconstructing Aboriginality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Alberti, S. The Afterlives of Animals: Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.