Taxidermy – Not Just A Stuffed Dog
DURING A SHORT trip around Ireland where we stayed in small private hotels I soon became accustomed to dining-room décor which included Victorian glass domed cases filled with birds and small rodents preserved and arranged by a taxidermist.
Partway through the Irish trip, my approach to the bar in a cramped provincial pub was halted when I came face to face with a greyhound, preserved in all its cream-coated glory and looking just a bit weary and moth-eaten.
I gasped (truly) and said to the barmaid: “Oh, my goodness, that is fabulous!”
Unimpressed, the barmaid muttered: “Creeps me out, having an old dog watching me work all night. I hate the thing.”
I think she would have sold that piece to me but the idea of carting it around Ireland and the UK for the rest of my holiday, only to have it confiscated by New Zealand Customs (who can be a bit thorny about importing animals – dead or alive), would have been heartbreaking.
Besides, I felt the old dog was probably part of the history of that pub and removing it would have been akin to the dog dying all over again.
So the greyhound stayed in Ireland but my interest in Victorian taxidermy had been ignited.
Taxidermy (Greek for “arrangement of the skin”) is the art of mounting or reproducing animals for display.
Animal death ceremonies and preservation after death are nothing new. The Egyptians weren’t queasy about the mummification of their pets and such animals which have been discovered in tombs often appear to have been purposely poisoned for the task of serving members of the clan in the afterlife.
Trendsetting Queen Victoria took mourning to the masses and the height of fashion when her husband, Albert, succumbed to typhoid at an early 42 years of age. Death was the new black and the Queen designated the grounds surrounding Windsor Castle as a resting place for her horses and dogs.
The Queen’s birds, on the other hand, were preserved by notable taxidermist James Gardner.
The Victorians popularised taxidermy as their interest in keeping natural history pieces grew. Large towns had resident taxidermists who evolved their distinctive styles.
Birds, mammals and fish were preserved in glass cases, some plain, others with a painted backdrop and a variety of props.
Anthropomorphic taxidermy, where the animals are posed, engaged in human activities, appeared largely as a result of the 1851 Great Exhibition where a German by the name of Ploucquet had exhibited comic groups of animals.
Sussex taxidermist Walter Potter later produced this type of work, his first and quite renowned piece being a re-enactment of the Death and Burial of Cock Robin. This tableau was comprised of 98 British birds and was not to everyone’s taste, though I’m certain it would have sat well in the parlour of any Irish Bed and Breakfast.
The preservation of the family pet dog was another important aspect of Victorian taxidermy and quite a number of these examples exist today.
Eminent Victorian hunter, naturalist and taxidermist Rowland Ward claimed in respect of dogs:
“… an animal that has been a faithful friend and companion to man, may in this way, [taxidermy] claim a fuller recompense in death than mere burial and subsequent oblivion.”
The British Museum (Natural History) has more than 100 preserved mounted dogs dating from Victorian times. A large number were the best of their breeds during their lives and many were champions.
These dogs are presented along with their pedigrees and showing records and it is interesting to see the changes these breeds have gone through in the past century. The Afghan hounds, for example, look more representative of the Saluki. By today’s standards, the dog is small and lacks coat but this was typical of the breed in Europe at that time.
Along with the museum, it is the taxidermist we have to thank for this significant collection which shows us in all its dimensions the changes which have taken place in the individual breeds.
The preserved and stuffed dog has got to be the ultimate pet collectible … loved, representative of its breed in its day, a fine example of the work of some very special artists, and welcome in my parlour any time.
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