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The Victorians were avid collectors of stuffed wildlife. Taxidermy, which was at its height in the 19th century, fell out of fashion but is once again proving popular.
The Victorian period saw an upsurge of interest in the natural world. Riding the tide of curiosity which pervaded the age, many people became fascinated with the flora and fauna of home and abroad - especially as general attention was excited by the many new and exotic discoveries from all parts of the Empire. In the absence of other means of preserving the details of all these creatures at first hand, taxidermy reached new height of popularity. Yet the taxidermist's output was not only to satisfy scientific curiosity; much of it was decorative, for display around the home, and was greatly admired by ladies 5 well as men.
William Swainson, the Victorian naturalist, defined taxidermy as 'the art of preserving animals' bodies otherwise than in spirits'. By the latter half of the 19th century this art had advanced to the point where animals could be preserved in a very lifelike manner and would last
for a considerable time.
The key to the durability of Victorian taxidermy lies with the preservatives used. In one recipe, laid down by the 18th-century French taxidermist Becoeur, arsenic was mixed with white soap, camphor and salt of tartar and lime to form a preservative known as arsenical soap. This not only preserved skin and prevented the decay of remaining flesh, but was also effective against insect attack.
However, this material was highly dangerous to use and many taxidermists opted for something safer. Charles Waterton swore by corrosive sublimate,
while Rowland Ward and Montagu Browne developed their own patent formula. Borax, which is non toxic, is the most widely used preservative today.
The processes of cleaning, stuffing and mounting specimens developed in the 19th century are broadly the same today. For birds and mammals a cut is made in the skin, allowing it to be peeled back and the flesh scraped away. The bones are removed, leaving only the skull, and the skin is treated with a preservative. A body of wadding or a framework of wires is then built up so the skin can be dressed over it. Tow, or wood wool, is carefully pushed into the cavities to pad out the body to a realistic shape. Glass eyes replace the natural ones, wires support limbs and wings, and wax or plaster is used to simulate fleshy parts, such as the inside of a mouth. The skin is then invisibly sewn up and supported in position until it has fully dried.
Finishing involves mounting the specimen on a baseboard or a branch and securing it in place by wires inserted through the feet. Groundwork - the representation of the animal's habitat - is then added. Painted clay and papier mache are used for rocks and stones. Dried moss, wax leaves or plants preserved in glycerine add to the effect. A painted backdrop in soft, sketchy watercolours might complete the scene if the animal is mounted in a glass-fronted case with a wooden back.
In Victorian times every town and even some villages had at least one firm of taxidermists. Many of the larger ones kept photographic records of their work; the book shows a variety of heads and skins prepared by Gerards. The keen naturalist could learn much from the study
of stuffed animals and birds, but examples such as this handsome tawny owl were prized as much for decoration as for their instructive value.
Taxidermists and dealers must be licensed whether hey are selling old or new specimens, so
it is rare to find extensive ranges of examples in general antiques shops. Licensing was introduced so that demand for certain animals did not encourage the unscrupulous and illegal slaughter of protected species to feed collector's market. Consequently, all stuffed animals sold through a licensed outlet will be either old pieces predating the legislation or newish pieces that have come to the taxidermist through legal means (or are not
protected species anyway).
Cases of mammals and birds are not always dated or marked with a taxidermist's name unless they come from one of the leading practitioners. Sometimes there is a signature on one of the case's uprights or perhaps inconspicuously painted on, say, a branch.
More information was usually given on fish cases as it was often regarded as an integral part of the display. Here, the taxidermist's name would commonly appear along with the captor's name, the fish's weight, length and girth and the date and location of its capture.
An experienced dealer, though, can identify the work of many taxidermists simply from the style and design of both the case and contents. In most instances, you will only be able to examine the condition of the animal through the glass of its case. This can be difficult, but look out for signs of insect damage around the eyes, badly faded plumage or fur colouring and bald patches.
by Russell Tinsley
The Breakthrough Mammal Taxidermy Manual by Jim Hall, et al; Plastic Comb
Small Game Taxidermy by Todd Triplett; Hardcover
Home Book of Taxidermy and Tanning
by Gerald J. Grantz
Taxidermy Today [MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTION] -- 6 issues/12 months
Trade journal for taxidermists and related artists, both professional and hobbyist. Contains how-to articles, product and services reviews, introductions and sources of supplies.