TAXIDERMY: A BLOODY HISTORY

The promise of spring.

Everything the bride was wearing had been made exactingly for her. Her wide, gathered skirt was made of an elegant ivory brocade, a voluminous confection with layer upon layer of tulle petticoats. The delicately scalloped edges at the wrists of her lace sleeves would perfectly offset the golden ring. Even more lace in an excited ruffle, edged with pearls and bouillon, framed her neckline. And upon her head, a veil in fine floral lace topped with a beaded crown that seemed to float above her like a halo. Clutching a bouquet of orange blossoms, gazing at her groom in his bespoke suit – handsomely accessorized right down to its golden pocket watch – her expression intent yet eerily empty. A precious moment, a glassy stare – because her eyes are, in fact, glass; because our bride, along with her groom, officiant, guests, and party, have been dead since sometime in the late 1800s. And they are kittens.

If you’re not horrified by now, you’re probably wondering what would drive someone to do such a thing, and the answer lies in jolly old Victorian England. Without the luxury of modern medicine and sanitation, the average person lived much closer to mortality. The ruler and namesake of the era notoriously mourned her husband’s passing for 40 years, and they did not have the Internet to distract them from any of it. Death was everywhere, but so was a vigorous curiosity to gain a comprehensive understanding of the living world. Without the convenience of modern photography, the most effective way to study nature was to collect it, and so began a golden age of taxidermy.

Unlike the stiff, and sometimes unfortunate, preparations of the 17th and 18th century, Victorians were developing a more nuanced understanding of anatomy, animals’ habitat, and sweet, sweet arsenic. The Great Exhibition at The Crystal Palace in 1851 had over six million attendees and showcased the latest innovations in science, art, and technology, including 14 taxidermists – one of whom was Hermann Ploucquet (1816-1878), who was in charge of the Royal Museum in Stuttgart. We don’t normally associate scientific minds with whimsical hearts, especially not ones dedicated

to tediously crafting squirrel-sized swords, however, Ploucquet’s fantastic works were one of the highlights of the exhibition. Intricately detailed miniature worlds featured duelling dormice, ice-skating hedgehogs, or his most popular work, a series of six scenes depicting the story of Reynard the Fox. These were admired by Lewis Carroll, Charles Darwin; even Queen Victoria herself described his work as “really marvellous” in
her diaries. The popularity of his work prompted the sale of daguerreotype photos and a book of woodcut illustrations aptly titled The Comical Creatures from Wurtemberg. Like anyone with a good idea, he was met with many imitators, but also many who were genuinely inspired.

“The Kittens’ Wedding’’ is the handiwork of Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918). We don’t know if he attended the exhibition, but he was to Victorian anthropomorphic taxidermy what Madonna is to pop. At 19, he started a seven-year journey with 98 species of birds to create “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin’’. He made sure every character in the poem’s 14 verses was accurately represented (except for the kite, who’d be awkwardly large next to the dainty songbirds in the procession). Exquisite details like glass tears in the eyes of the mourners and the brass hardware on the coffin add tenderness to his work. The two-meter-wide diorama was displayed at his family’s inn, and the extremely positive reception spurred him on to create “The Rabbits’ Village School” (48 rabbits learning math, music, and most importantly, mischief), “Athletic Toads” (unlike the kittens they are not wearing any clothing, but enjoying a day at the playground), “Monkey Riding a Goat”, and many others.

The platform at Bramber railway station was expanded to accommodate the growing number of visitors that came from far and wide to be awed by Mr. Potter’s Museum of Curiosities. By the end of his life, the collection had over 10,000 specimens. Though his technical prowess may have left a bit to be desired, the charm and sincerity of his work is hard to ignore. After his death, the museum passed into the hands of his family, but eventually closed in the 1970s due to a dying interest in taxidermy. In 2003 the collection was put up for auction by Bonham’s after they apparently rejected Damien Hirst’s offer of £1 million to keep it intact. The works now live in private collections across the world.

Thankfully, a lot has changed since the Victorian era, but the magnetism of these artifacts transcends time. Modern taxidermists and collectors abide by standards that rightfully prioritize conservation of the living, but on the other hand, an overly rigorous focus on the scientific has left little place for whimsy. A modern viewer may see these works as a perversion or desecration of nature, but many, especially artists, see curiosity, irreverence, and a historical cultural portrait. Ploucquet, Potter, and their set created these scenes for entertainment, social commentary, a respite from an otherwise often dark reality – and a new generation of taxidermists is carrying on the tradition, creating not just anthropomorphic dioramas, but chimeric beasts, wearable taxidermy, performance, and more. Perhaps by posing animals as ourselves, we pose ourselves as animals, which arouses something a bit uncanny, but worth reflecting on nonetheless.

Divya Anantharaman is an award-winning taxidermist, the owner of Gotham Taxidermy in Brooklyn, NY, board member of the New England Association of Taxidermists, and co-author of the book “Stuffed Animals: A Modern Guide to Taxidermy.”

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