Friday, 22 November 2013

Eccentric Collecting

Eccentric Collecting

           When one thinks of the Victorian era, the phrase ’propriety’ typically jumps into mind. However, some aspects of the Victorian era were far from the conventional. The growth of science and industry lead to the Great Exhibition (1851) which displayed a worldwide collection of inventions and discoveries. Consequently, having been influenced by Scientist Charles Darwin, many Victorian’s became avid collectors’ of eccentric objects. A significant example of this was Walter Potter who was infatuated with collecting ‘stuffed animals’ or taxidermy. Therefore by using Darwin’s journal The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), the taxidermy collection of Potter and my own experience of my voyage to the Horniman Museum, I intend to explore the eccentric collections of Victorian taxidermy.

The eccentric collection of Charles Darwin

          In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin regularly references to his passion for collecting. Darwin describes his diligence and  ‘[anxiousness] …to collect alpine plants’ (Darwin:200), his determination and passion for collecting  although [feeling] very unwell’ (Darwin:256) and finally  shows a sense of pride and accomplishment whilst evaluating his ‘large collection’ (Darwin:31).  Due to the influence of Darwin who ‘showed more shooting’ (Bergman:126), many upper class Victorians displayed their collections of taxidermy as ‘domestic decoration’ or trophies (Logan:103).  This is due to the fact that Taxidermy provided many Victorians with a sense of power because of their knowledge of the wider exotic world which were considered eccentric due to the fact it was less accessible to them.   
Figure One:(VanWyhe)
          As Darwin’s voyage took approximately five years, Darwin was able to collect an immense number of specimens as evidence to accommodate his Theory of Evolution. Whilst in San Pedro, Darwin notices (figure One):
 ‘A fox (Canis fulvipes), of a kind said to be peculiar to the island, very rare and which is a new species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers, that I was able…to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox … less wise, than the generality of his breathen, is now mounted’ (Darwin:268). 
Here Darwin draws the reader into his close observation of the fox. The series of commas lengthen the time the reader spends reading about the fox’s beauty and therefore increases their anticipation for the events that follow. Darwin emphasises the fox’s rarity by repeating its worth using the phrases ‘peculiar’, ‘very rare’ and ‘new species’. This not only increases the fox’s value, but also increases the reader’s admiration for Darwin’s fortune of seeing the animal closely. Regardless of the fox’s scarcity, Darwin massacres the animal by ‘[knocking] him on the head with [his] geological hammer’. As the phrase ‘knock’ produces a harsh sound its reiterates the fox’s pain as it gets hit by Darwin. As science was gradually developing during the Victorian era, specialised equipment such as tranquilisers which are accessible today were not available. Consequently, a contemporary reader may view Darwin killing the animal as eccentric, rash and violent as he kills the fox for pleasure using a ‘geological hammer’ probably formed from stone, therefore more than capable to brain the animal. As a modern reader, Darwin not only violently kills this creature after seeing its magnificence but defiantly reports the dim-wittedness of the animal and reduces it to an object where the fox is ‘mounted’ like a wall hanging. Ironically, being a ‘animal lover’ Darwin stated that ‘animals experience feelings analogous to human emotions…in gestures, facial expressions and postures’ (Morse:21-22), yet is portrayed as being cruel to the fox by depriving it of integrity and the chance of escape, therefore is immediately captured for Darwin’s collection.       

Figure two:(Horniman Museum)
    Similarly to the fox ‘mounted im’, whilst vising the Horniman museum, I was able to see figure two displaying Sussex foxes. The most striking feature of this museum was its large amount of real taxidermy displays of insects, animals, skeletons and fossils. These were all effectively preserved in a series of cases which retained the distinctive appearance of a Victorian display of wooden farmed glass cabinets exhibiting the taxidermy. The most significant part of my experience was my close examination of the foxes. As living creatures, particularly animals in the wild tend to move sharply when seen by humans; it initially felt peculiar to be looking closely at real family of foxes for long periods of time. This specific display was particularly large, therefore provided a detailed portrayal of the environment. This experience was thoroughly rewarding as I was able to visually study the physical texture of the foxes in a way that I had not experienced before. For example, the more mature foxes had tired skin and browner appearance in comparison to the cubs that seemed more auburn in colour and softer in texture. 

          Like Darwin who draws comparisons between creatures, I too was also able to compare the foxes to other creatures within other displays. 
Figure three: (Horniman Museum)
For example, the badgers appeared to have a coarser fur and a more stout build in figure three compared to the foxes lean stature which made their fur seem finer. In addition, as the exhibition portrayed the accurate scale of the animals, the cubs seemed to resemble the size of a small dog. Therefore, because of their small physical size I was able to see how vulnerable and fragile the cubs were by comparing them to the ratio of me and the adult foxes within the same display, which made me sympathise with Darwin’s brained fox. As the cubs are portrayed as moving around, they are presented as children, being innocent, adventurous and pushing boundaries whilst also being under the eye of their parents. Due to the natural setting of the large display, I was able to imagine the sound of the foxes despite the fact that in reality they were not making a noise. (Horniman Museum)

   The eccentric collection of Walter Potter:
Figure five: (Carter)
Figure four: (Taxidermy)
 Walter Potter’s collection revitalised Taxidermy by creating a tableau where animals were captured within a particular narrative scene simultaneously depicting their past and future actions. (Henning:664). Potter may have been inspired by Hermann Ploucquet's work which was displayed in the Great Exhibition. One of Ploucquets well-known pieces was ‘The school master at home’ depicted in figure four illustrating the humanisation of the animals through gestures and facial expressions by making them characters. Unlike Ploucquet who limited the number of animals used, Potter used a large number of animals from his local community within Sussex. This effectively presented in figure five where Potter illustrates a large class of rabbits learning from their teacher(Henning:667). 

Figure seven: (Horniman Museum)
Figure Six: (Horniman Museum)
           In order to examine Potter closer, I visited the Horniman Museum. The most striking collection within the Taxidermy collection was the species of birds. Like Potters depiction of rural birds, as the lighting within the Horniman Museum was soft, it created the impression of the audience being part of the bird’s natural woodland setting (figure six and seven). Similarly to Potter figure six emphasises this via the painted background. As a result, the dim perception of the woodland setting provided viewers with the natural and realistic outlook of the bird’s habitat. Although Potter creates a natural setting for his taxidermy animals, the main feature which makes his collection eccentric is the fact that he skilfully combines two boundaries. The first boundary is human nature and the other animal nature. 

Figure eight: (Carter)
Figure nine: (Carter)
Figure ten: (Corcoran)
Potter effectively does this by creating a human scene for the characters to react to which humanise the animals. An example of this is figures eight and nine which are Potters most successful earlier pieces depicting various creatures including birds and a cow gathering around to take part in a funeral service. Here, Potter furnishes the taxidermy animals with human emotions and gestures such as the tilt of the bird’s head to display their sense of loss and mourning as they attend a funeral. Another effective method Potter utilises is dressing the birds in human clothes as demonstrated with the black sash which conform to the British culture of wearing black for mourning. The clothing and humanisation of the animals is effectively portrayed in figure ten within Potters Kittens. Consequently, Potter employs Darwin’s theory of making human more animal and animal more human (Morse:2).Like Darwin’s taxidermy, Potter’s collection drew a large amount of interest in the Victorian era. However, collections of taxidermy can be considered an unconventional and eccentric to contemporary viewers as it rebels against the animal’s right act. Here the animals forced into a world of clothes which they do not belong. As a result, they are deprived of the right to live and are instead killed to be ‘stuffed’ and enclosed in a glass box for entertainment and humour which many would consider as cruelty.  

         In conclusion, although being a modern viewer, having had first-hand experience with taxidermy, it is clear that in the Victorian era taxidermy was not simply a ‘stuffed animal in a box’; it was a representation uniting humanity, wildlife and nature together. As science and exploring exotic countries outside Europe were new conceptions within Victorian Britain, it is evident that figures like Charles Darwin and Walter Potter played a large role in their portrayal of taxidermy. Although factors such as animal rights have come into place in today’s society, taxidermy currently today and initially to the Victorians can be considered ‘eccentric collectables’.

Word Count:  1571

Works Cited:

Bergman,Jerry. The Dark Side of Charles Darwin: A Critical Analysis of an Icon of Science. New leaf publishing group. 2011 [Print]

Carter, Kate. “The curious world of Walter Potter in pictures” The Guardian. September 2013.webpage. [Accsessed:15/11/2013] 


Cocoran, Kieran. "Kittens getting married and bunnies at school: How eccentric Victorian taxidermist put dead animals in bizarre positions". The Daily Mail. September 2013. Webpage. [Accsessed:15/11/2013]

Henning, Michelle. “Anthropomorphic Taxidermy and the Death of Nature: The Curious Art of HermannPloucquet, Walter Potter, and Charles Waterton”. Victorian Literature and Culture. Vol 35, Issue 2.  Cambridge University Press (2007), pp. 663-678 < >

Horniman Museum. 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London SE23 3PQ. Acsessed 5/11/2013

Logan, Thad. The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study. The University of Cambridge Press. 2001 [print]

Morse, Deberoh. Victorian Animal Dreams:The Nineteenth Century.Ashgate Publishing Limited. 2007 [print]

Taxidermy. January 2009. Webpage [acsessed:11/11/2013]. <>

Vanwyhe,John. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. 2002.webpage [accessed:11/11/2013]                     <>


  1. I like your topic choice as it is also very relevant to our society today - people are avid collectors and in a way it shows us that eccentricity is something that has carried on from the Victorian Era. The only difference I can see is, in the time we in they are certain limitations with collecting anything to do with animals - this doesn't stop people from doing it though. You handled such an odd topic really well, I really like your explanations as to why people were that way and Darwin as an example fits in well. I also thought of Job Legh from Mary Barton, he is a collector of some sort too. I guess it is quite an admirable pursuit to for a person to decade themselves to.

    1. Eccentric collecting is definitely relevant to our society today and it was probably inspired by the Victorian era. You are absolutely right; there are certain limitations when it comes to collecting taxidermy. Nevertheless, despite ethical issues, it is still used in artwork where different features of animals are combined to create a whole new form of an animal.