Taxidermy, by Alexis Turner
An illustrated homage to taxidermy explores the practice from Victorian times to the present
Thames and Hudson
Taxidermy is Alexis Turner’s beautifully designed homage to the long- established, curious and flamboyant art of skinning and stuffing dead creatures. Turner’s examination of the practice encompasses religious beliefs, science and museums, interiors, fashion and advertising, tracking it all the way to the present day in a fascinating and occasionally queasy-making narrative. Some of the accompanying images will definitely challenge your stomach: stuffed freaks of nature such as an eight-legged piglet, a two-headed calf and a pair of conjoined lambs. Those are all examples of teratology in taxidermy; the study of abnormalities.
Anyone with access to the internet in 2013 can find images and videos of pretty much any living animal or bird. But in the Victorian era, the only lions and zebras and hummingbirds you were likely to see close up were stuffed. The educational aspect of the public being able to see exotic animals, albeit dead ones, led to the establishment of several well-known museums of natural history, among them our own Dead Zoo on Kildare Street in Dublin.
But there was no educational element attached to the other Victorian collections of exotic animals that filled the specially-made trophy rooms of wealthy hunters. The more big game you killed, the higher your social status became. Quantity was everything. Turner reports that one hunter in Kenya at the cusp of the 20th century killed 80 lions in a single day. In 1912, in what Turner describes as a “short” hunting trip to the Arctic, 21 polar bears were shot in 10 days. And by the time the famous Van Ingen taxidermy company of Mysore, India, closed, in 1999, it had mounted more than 43,000 tigers and leopards during the 90 years it was in business.
It wasn’t only members of the British Raj who loved to hunt big game. “In 1925, the Maharaja of Kotah had his Rolls Royce Phantom modified for tiger hunting by adding a machine gun and a cannon,” Turner writes.
Being practical, the Victorians found other uses for those parts of the beheaded animals they didn’t display in their trophy rooms. Taxidermy supported the fashion for such items as elephant-foot footstools, hippopotamus-tusk chandeliers, yak-foot doorstops, a leopard skull with the eye-sockets fitted with inkwells, and a hinged rhino’s head that opened to reveal a customised cocktail cabinet (all pictured, bar the rhino cocktail cabinet).
As for birds, they were sandwiched between the glass of firescreens, or displayed in domes in drawingrooms in the interiors fashion of the day. The more brightly-feathered the bird, such as hummingbirds or the long-tailed quetzals, the more desired they were by wealthy women, and the more of a talking point they were over afternoon tea.
The books of Beatrix Potter, with their talking mice, ducks, kittens, squirrels, frogs and rabbits contributed to the fashion for anthropomorphic taxidermy, and made famous the names of Walter Potter and Edward Hart. Their sentimental tableaux of kittens having tea parties, rabbits in a schoolroom, toads playing cards, and many other scenes of human activities, are still prized today at auction. Hart’s best-known work is a series of five cases of boxing squirrels, still on display at the National Trust property of Castle Ward in Co Down.