Delia Falconer on the return of taxidermy
By Alexis Turner Thames & Hudson, 256pp, $39.95
UNTIL recently, taxidermy was out of fashion, relegated to shops for goths and function rooms hoping to create a colonial frisson. Even public institutions such as the Melbourne Museum were mothballing their large taxonomic collections. Now, according to Alexis Turner, we are in the middle of a taxidermy revival, if that term is not too oxymoronic. Stuffed animals are making an appearance in trendy London restaurants, fashion shoots, art and private homes.
Taxidermy (literally, ‘‘ arrangement of skin’’) is a strange half-art that is rarely about aesthetics; or if it is, it is too often about the kitschy, the macabre and the not-quite-right. There is always a queasy shiver in recognising skin as wrapping; for everything else — flesh, skeleton, tongue, even eyes — is discarded before the hide is stretched around a moulded form. Then there is the category confusion between animal and thing that taxidermy makes so much more obvious than a handbag or shoe, as the whole point is to keep the evidence of past life intact. Good taxidermy is creepy in its closeness to life (though only ever so convincing). Bad taxidermy, with its visible stitching and escaping stuffing, is the stuff of nightmare. Then there is the small fact that this art requires death in order to preserve life. No wonder it’s so often associated with creepy people: it was the hobby, remember, of Psycho’s Norman Bates.
Turner, owner of London Taxidermy, is eager to rehabilitate its reputation. In this smart-looking book he takes us briskly through the history of preserving and mounting skins. Mummifying animals goes back millennia, but the earliest known example of a stuffed animal is the 1530s crocodile that hangs from the ceiling of a church in Ponte Nossa, Italy. The earliest example of a stuffed bird is the Duchess of Richmond’s pet parrot, preserved with spices and peppers in 1792, on display in Westminster Abbey. Few examples survive from this era because methods of preservation were so primitive.
Taxidermy came of age as a technology in the 18th century, thanks to the Enlightenment’s urge to collect and classify. French pharmacist Jean-Baptiste Becoeur invented arsenical soap. Another Frenchman, Louis Dufresne, curator of Paris’s Natural History Museum, literally wrote the book on the craft, which soon spread through Europe. Taxidermists developed signature styles collectors can identify today. England’s star was Rowland Ward, whose diorama ‘‘ Jungle Life’’, displayed at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, incorporated more than 100 specimens including a whole-mount elephant and snakes hanging from trees. Colonialism, obviously, is a big part of this story, though Turner doesn’t give it much attention: trophy-bagging was so big in India that factories sprang up to mount hunters’ tiger skins.
Not that taxidermy has always confined itself to animals. Edouard Verreaux was famous for tableaus of frogs (the most difficult creatures to stuff because of their thin skins) playing cards and billiards. He also allegedly disinterred a bushman in Botswana in the 1830s, who was later sold to Spain’s Darder Museum which, incredibly, exhibited ‘‘ El Negro’’ until it released him for burial in 2000.
The text is informative but this book is all about its arty photos, moving Thames & Hudson into the territory of glossy-bizarre German publisher Taschen. Among its more haunting images are a sylvan hunting scene in which stillborn puppies act as gun dogs; an old-man orangutan hanging contemplatively from a mossy branch in the corner of a sitting room; and an elephant-foot footstool with buffed nails on which perches a tiny, matching box, made from a baby elephant’s foot. Another arresting photo shows the aftermath of the fire that destroyed the famous Deyrolle showroom in Paris in 2008: a row of birds perch on a blackened display case, each charred an eerie crow-black, like an installation about death.
Art and fashion feature in the book’s final section. But while Turner includes designers like Alexander McQueen and artists like Wim DeIvoye, he omits more challenging or critical responses, such as those of artist Kate Foster’s series of photographs of a harrier hawk skin back in the Scottish countryside where the live birds have disappeared. Nor is there any mention of the recent academic movement, typified by Samuel Alberti’s The Afterlives of Animals, that tries to trace the ‘‘ biography’’ of displays in order to turn them back again from objects into individual creatures.
Turner also gives very little attention to the central irony of scientific collection: that it was also responsible for vast killing sprees. Recent work on America’s Museum of Natural History depicts president Theodore Roosevelt as a bloodthirsty collector, his 1909-10 ‘‘ conservation’’ trip to Africa bagging more than 11,000 specimens, which he and his big-gamehunting friends split with various institutions. Acquiring a prime (usually male) specimen often meant killing and discarding many others that didn’t measure up and, as that little elephant foot reminds us, vigilant mothers and orphaned young. Dioramas were, as Turner