The Skin You're In!
Taxidermy is an 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. Some people like it and others think it's downright creepy, one of the uncomfortable realities of taxidermy is 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); translates to movement of skin which 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 mould 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 its roots in ancient Egypt. Excavations would often result in mummified finds of 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.
Which is quite different to 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 amongst other things. But the end product looked saggy and shapeless gaining taxidermy a bad reputation. In the 1500's 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.
By 19th century natural history became immensely popular area for study and discussion amongst 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 1851 otherwise known as 'The Crystal Palace Exhibition' was the first ever international showcase for manufactured products. Organised by Prince Albert & 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 and housed 14,000 exhibitors from all over the globe.
The Crystal Palace
This monumental event took place in London's famous hyde park, attended by six million people and was 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 were 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 where 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. Immortalising his celebrity in taxidermy history.
Although already popular in victorian society animal taxidermy was only boosted further after the exhibition and Queen Victoria's interest peaked as her love for birds could be perpetuated through new and innovative taxidermic techniques and 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 Bramer Sussex England. One of his most famous taxidermy tableaux is "The Death and Burial Of Cock Robin"; .
inspired by a book of nursery rhymes given to his younger sister, the tableaux includes close to a hundred birds, a few of which are extinct today. The tableaux arrangement coincides with every line of the nursery rhyme such as; the pall bearing wrens and a grave digging owl, which was a painstaking 7 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 ran by his family where the tableaux was showcased. Due to its popularity Walter soon produced similar taxidermy tableaux and over the years visitors encouraged his parents to give potter a piece of land next to the inn. Where the famous Potters Bramer museum was built which stayed open until 1972.
There is an uncanny coincidence between some of potters theatrical taxidermy most notably the kittens tea 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.
In a society where our cultural sensibilities seem more sensitive than ever and social justice groups fighting against the political class for all sorts of causes some more noble 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 protecting 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 where 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 trend in new forms and applications of taxidermy has been harnessed by a new generation who have taken it to a new level, people like Claire Morgan who's 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.
With new interest and energy in this industry there a 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 endeavour 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 5 years ago has developed and interesting niche with her performing art taxidermy puppet shows. Although, some of her pieces could be perceived as beyond crude which is Ironic considering what taxidermy entails.
Whether you think this art form is dark, macabre, or intriguing and evocative, one thing is for certain the men that brought this morbidly beautiful craft to the spotlight almost 2 centuries ago would be extremely happy to see how taxidermy has evolved and is alive and 'still' kicking in the 21st century.
© 2016 Daniel Sevan