Delia Fal­coner on the re­turn of taxi­dermy

Taxi­dermy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Delia Fal­coner

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

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