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The History of Taxidermy: Life After Death!

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Polly Morgan: "Still Birth"

Polly Morgan: "Still Birth"

Taxidermy: Art in the Afterlife

Taxidermy is the ancient art of preserving mainly vertebrate animals for display; there are many methods used to produce a three-dimensional, life-like representation of an animal that has passed on. When done right, the results can be eerily provocative. While some people like it, and others think it's downright creepy, one of the uncomfortable realities of taxidermy is that it makes us face the stark mortal truth of what we all have to go through—death!

Derived from ancient Greek taxis (arrangement) and derma (skin), this translates to movement of skin that is perfectly fitting because actual taxidermy requires you to move the natural skin with specialist tools and, with multiple adjustments, apply the skin on a mold until the illusion of a living animal is achieved.

Modern taxidermy practice entails many crafts, from carpentry to casting and the artistic talents of sculpting, drawing, and painting. Early forms of what some call a morbid and strange interest can find their roots in ancient Egypt. Excavations would often result in finds of mummified pets, such as cats and dogs, buried with their also mummified owners. But the technique used to mummify ancient Egyptians and their beloved pets is known as embalming.

Cat mummy

Cat mummy

Pierre Belon, author of the first taxidermy book

Pierre Belon, author of the first taxidermy book

Embalming is quite different from the preservation techniques practiced in later times. Taxidermists would normally be specialist upholsters; the hide would be sent to a tannery where the specimen would be stuffed with straw, cotton, and sawdust, among other things. But the end product looked saggy and shapeless, gaining taxidermy a bad reputation.

In the 1500s, taxidermy acquired other applications small birds were stuffed for falconry hunting. However, the 16th century did see interest in taxidermy increase from the scientific community, and by 1555, the very first taxidermy book was written by French naturalist Pierre Belon.

Anthropomorphic Taxidermy

By the 19th century, natural history became an immensely popular subject for study and discussion among the higher classes. Pioneering taxidermists worked on less poisonous preservation processes over the next century. But it was not seen as a conduit to artistic impression until the Great Exhibition.

The Great Exhibition of 1851, otherwise known as "The Crystal Palace Exhibition," was the first-ever international showcase for manufactured products and was organized by Prince Albert and Henry Cole. The crystal palace was a glistening cast-iron, plate-glass, 990,000-square-foot structure designed by green house doyen Sir Joseph Paxton that housed 14,000 exhibitors from all over the globe.

The Crystal Palace Exhibition

This monumental event took place in London's famous Hyde Park, was attended by six million people, and intended to put the little-known art of anthropomorphic taxidermy (the representation of animals performing human activities) firmly into the international spotlight.

A small group of taxidermists was invited to exhibit their works, one of whom was a German taxidermist from the Royal Museum of Stuttgart named Hermann Ploucquet. His anthropomorphic dioramas of love between two weasels, hedgehogs ice skating, and a kitten serenading a piglet were just a few novel but delightful taxidermy tableaux that enchanted Victorian audiences.

Newspapers regularly ran pithy descriptions of Ploucquet's taxidermic dramas. His intriguing work also attracted royal eyes in Queen Victoria, who affectionately mentions Hermann's displays in her journal of the great exhibition.

In fact, Hermann's imaginative taxidermy prowess would be (excuse the pun) "preserved" for future generations to come, as a book of engravings was published before the exhibition ended, immortalizing his celebrity in taxidermy history.

Hedgehogs tableaux by Hermann Ploucquet

Hedgehogs tableaux by Hermann Ploucquet

Although already popular in Victorian society, animal taxidermy was only boosted further after the exhibition, when Queen Victoria's interest was piqued, as her love for birds could be perpetuated through new and innovative taxidermic techniques, and she amassed a huge collection of bird taxidermy.

A young, 16-year-old Walter Potter attended the great exhibition and almost definitely was inspired by Ploucquet's taxidermy narratives. Little did he know he also would become a pioneering player in anthropomorphic taxidermy. Potter was a churchwarden and self-taught taxidermist. He serviced the Victorian need for pet taxidermy in the village of Bramber in Sussex, England. One of his most famous taxidermy tableaux is The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.

"The Death and Burial of Cock Robin"

"The Death and Burial of Cock Robin"

The Death and Burial of Cock Robin by Walter Potter

Inspired by a book of nursery rhymes given to his younger sister, the tableau includes close to a hundred birds, a few of which are extinct today. The tableau arrangement coincides with every nursery rhyme line, such as the pall-bearing wrens and a grave-digging owl, which was a painstaking seven-year process for Potter.

Walter Potter's taxidermy talents soon became a sensation, and people from Sussex and beyond would descend on the White Lion Inn, which was run by his family, where the tableau was showcased. Due to its popularity, Walter soon produced a similar taxidermy tableau, and over the years, visitors encouraged his parents to give Potter a piece of land next to the inn, where the famous Potter's Bramber museum was built, which stayed open until 1972.

Painting of Potter's Bramber museum

Painting of Potter's Bramber museum

There is an uncanny coincidence involved in some of Potter's theatrical taxidermy, most notably the The Kittens' Tea & Croquet Party from the Museum of Curiosities Collection, which some say is where another famous Potter (no, not Harry), Beatrix, got her inspiration for her children's books.

Ethical Taxidermy and the Taxidermy Renaissance

In a society where our cultural sensibilities seem more sensitive than ever and social justice groups fight against the political class for all sorts of causes, some nobler than others, the subject of animal cruelty runs high on the agenda. Animal testing has been a highly contested practice over the decades, with evidence of cruelty and unethical methods exposed.

With a resurgence of modern taxidermy in recent years, there are ethical requirements in place; laws protect certain species where modern taxidermists must have legal paperwork proving the animal wasn't killed for the sole purpose of taxidermy.

Specimens are usually obtained if they have died of natural causes; some animals who have met an unfortunate demise on the roads, etc., are donated, and there are ethically sourced taxidermy suppliers from whom seasoned and novice taxidermists can acquire specimens.

And speaking of the taxidermy renaissance, with artists like Damien Hirst and Polly Morgan bringing modern taxidermy back into pop culture in recent years, it has never been more alive (ahem!). The growing trends in new forms and applications of taxidermy have been harnessed by a new generation, who have taken it to a new level. This includes people like Claire Morgan, whose amazing installations carry a feeling of a captured moment in the natural history of the lives of her subjects. Her style uses a process of melding taxidermy animals and insects with other organisms to awe-inspiring effect.

Claire Morgan: "Hang Over"

Claire Morgan: "Hang Over"

Learning Taxidermy

With new interest and energy in this industry, there are plenty of groups, forums, and taxidermy classes you can join. This is not for the faint-hearted; learning taxidermy is a journey of morbidity, discovery, and introspection. These classes, more affectionately known as "DIY taxidermy" classes, attract enthusiasts and neophytes alike, and there's an almost tangible air of respect for the process.

A common misconception is that dissecting is a smelly endeavor, but you'll be surprised by having an olfactory experience of a metallic taste in the air while you embark on the process. An interesting taxidermist and performer, Charlie Tuesday Gates, runs taxidermy classes but admits she's not a professional.

The self-taught Gates, who attempted taxidermy after her brother brought home a road-kill fox five years ago, has developed an interesting niche with her performing art taxidermy puppet shows. However, some of her pieces could be perceived as beyond crude, which is ironic considering what taxidermy entails.

The Craft of Taxidermy Is "Alive" in the 21st Century

Whether you think this art form is dark and macabre or intriguing and evocative, one thing is for certain—the men who brought this morbidly beautiful craft to the spotlight almost two centuries ago would be extremely happy to see how taxidermy has evolved and is "alive" and still kicking in the 21st century.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Daniel Sevan