It is probably a lot easier to question, even reject the practice of Victorian ‘theatrical taxidermy’ on ethical and squeamish grounds than to accept its uncanny appeal and the sheer fascination that it holds as a creative act. But that would be a real shame. I remember my first encounter with such anthropomorphic displays. It was the good old late 90s and I was looking at the bizarre album cover of Low Birth Weight by Piano Magic. The sleeve showed an image from Walter Potter’s Kitten Tea Party from the end of the 19th century. After the initial surprise and disbelief, I can recall being torn between a sense of humorous enjoyment and one of guilty repulsion. I guess that’s what the whole Victorian curiosity appeal was all about.
Then last year, at the Museum of Everything Exhibition #3 in London, I had the chance to see these anthropomorphic tableaux in their full glory. The displays mostly featured Walter Potter’s incredibly intricate Museum of Curiosities Collection: quirky scenes including a classroom of rabbits and a kitten tea party, but also other eccentric taxidermy works such as Edward Hart’s boxing squirrels in The Prize Fight.
I thought the most striking pieces of the show were the more utopian and theatrical tableaux such as The Happy Family or Death and Burial of Cock Robin (which by itself took 7 years in the making). These fantastical scenes, although undoubtably extremely odd looking and vaguely creepy, are nonetheless distancing themselves so much from the origin of taxidermy for preservation and as natural history, that it would be impossible not to regard them as works of art.
I think it is important to mention here that Potter is thought to have worked only with animals who had died of natural causes (or so we all hope). Though he is considered the master of anthropomorphic taxidermy, he is said to have been inspired by a predecessor scientist-turned-quirky-storyteller called Hermann Ploucquet, who worked as the taxidermist of the Royal Museum in Stuttgart and whose animal curiosities The Comical Creatures of Wurtemburg (based on illustrations and fables) were displayed at the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition in 1851, praised by Queen Victoria and subsequently exposed in print to the wider public.
A lot of contemporary art seems to have embraced and transformed the concept of applied taxidermy (something that I’m hoping to look at in another post), but I recently found out that a more traditional art form continues to exist. Last weekend I had the chance to participate to Taxidermy and Tea, an event in Hackney, London organised by The Robin Collective in collaboration with Animal Vegetable Mineral. It featured a taxidermy demonstration workshop hosted by Amanda of Amanda’s Autopsies. Amanda’s art seems to exist in a more Potter-esque style of taxidermy and she is consciously working towards the preservation of its traditional craft roots. Topics such as ethical issues on ways of sourcing the animals were dealt with in a very humorous way and, although I realized on the night that I will ultimately never attempt hands-on taxidermy myself, it was a unique and inspiring evening. After all I think that transforming roadkill (or snake-feed frozen rats that could easily end up being wastefully thrown away, as Amanda pointed out) into something poetic and playful, to say the least, beholds an unconventional degree of respect. This type of transformation I would definitely call art.
Sources and links:
A personal favourite resource for Taxidermy online: Ravishing Beasts (link to page on Walter Potter)