Victorian Taxidermy: Curiosities and Oddities from the Age of Exploration

Victorian Taxidermy: A Large and Extensive Victorian Taxidermist's Museum Display of Exotic Birds in the Manner of John Gould. A Large and Extensive Victorian Taxidermist's Museum Display of Exotic Birds in the Manner of John Gould. Sold for £8,000 GBP via Dawsons Auctioneers (November 2022).

In an era of exponential growth, Queen Victoria’s reign was characterized by social reform, the right to vote, an expanding Empire, and a curiosity for the natural world that led to elaborate and sometimes bizarre displays of taxidermy in fascinating Victorian cabinets of curiosities.

“Taxidermy is an art absolutely essential to be known to every naturalist since, without it, he cannot pursue his studies or preserve his own materials”

British zoologist William Swainson in his 1840 Treatise on Taxidermy

What began in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as a means of preserving specimens collected by explorers, would find a home in Victorian era Britain as a mark of social status and represent not only the growing wealth of those in society, but also a genuine interest in animals and biology. And so the art of taxidermy was born… and then embalmed.

The reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) would become known as the Victorian era, and it was during this period when travel was becoming easier and a curiosity of the natural world meant that taxidermy offered people the opportunity to inspect animals with closer eyes, and allowed scientists, naturalists, and collectors to study specimens they otherwise might never encounter.

Such was its popularity during the late 19th century that 369 taxidermists operated in the English capital alone, according to the 1891 London census. That’s about one taxidermist for every 15,000 Londoners. This soaring popularity over a more than 60 year period has resulted a varied standard of the practise, so recognising genuine Victorian taxidermy can require closer inspection.

Collecting Victorian Taxidermy

The art of taxidermy has enjoyed a revival in recent years, so identifying authentic Victorian taxidermy amid a crowded marketplace can be daunting. It needn’t be though, as genuine taxidermy often comes with documentation detailing the species, origin, and even sometimes information about the taxidermist. Authentic taxidermy can also be identifiable by sight, so look for natural coloration of the animal, realistic eyes, and lifelike poses, along with natural materials like glass eyes, wood, and the condition of pelts or feathers. Synthetic materials likely indicate a modern or less authentic piece.

Society’s views on taxidermy have evolved over the years, so too have its ethics, especially when it comes to the sourcing of animals. This has given rise to ethical taxidermy, which prioritizes using ethically sourced animals, which could include animals that died of natural causes or were ethically sourced as roadkill. And today there’s often greater focus on laws regarding the collection and possession of animal specimens, as well as a wider understanding of endangered or culturally significant animals.

Most popular Victorian taxidermy was often domestic, with birds commonly arranged in natural poses in display cabinets, which were particularly popular decorations for Victorians curious to see the birds up close. Victorian taxidermy tended to focus on native animals like squirrels and mice, as well as foxes and deer, while fish taxidermy was also popular and can still be seen in the older London pubs. Those who could afford to source exotic animals preserved big cats like tigers or leopards, while some affluent Victorian families even preserved their beloved pets.

Weird and Wonderful Victorian Taxidermy

Victorian Taxidermy: Group of Red Squirrels.

A Victorian Taxidermy Group of Red Squirrels. Sold for £10,000 GBP via Christie’s (March 2014).

Taxidermy afforded many people their first sighting of some animals. And without any base of comparison it on occasion resulted in some unusual looking pieces that at best had a passing resemblance to the animal in question. You might well be thinking how weird or anatomically peculiar it could get, so put your feet up on a Victorian tortoise foot stool and have a think about quite how skewed a Victorian interpretation of a tortoise might be. And then double it.

This blending of the exotic and unusual with utilitarian furniture and objet d’art was common place in the Victorian era. A mythical sabre tooth seal ink well anyone? Or perhaps a Victorian taxidermy turtle ashtray? A Rowland Ward candlestick formed from three deer hooves? Or doing away with function entirely, a Victorian monkey head wearing a fez? Presumably he was of Ottoman origin.

Exaggerating the creativity of the staging was an all-important element part of taxidermy, but to one amateur Victorian taxidermist it was a step into another world of whimsy. Walter Potter was an English taxidermist who presented animals mimicking human life in settings reminiscent of a children’s book. Everyday scenes of school life, sat around the dining room table, or attending a wedding were portrayed by clothed mice, or in the case of the latter, by kittens.

Following his death, his work was displayed in his museum in Sussex, England, but after it closed in the 1970s some of his collection found its way to auction in 2003, where it generated considerable interest, most notably from postmodern artist Damien Hirst, who is renowned for his own interpretation of taxidermy. “My own favourites are these tableaux: there’s a kittens’ wedding party, with all these kittens dressed up in costumes, even wearing jewellery,” he said. “The kittens don’t look much like kittens, but that’s not the point. There’s a rats’ drinking party too, which puts a different construction on Wind in the Willows. And a group of hamsters playing cricket.”

How were Victorian Taxidermy Specimens Prepared and Preserved?

Taxidermy, when done correctly, is an art. Victorian taxidermy was a labor-intensive and highly skilled craft that required patience, attention to detail, and an understanding of anatomy and environment. Typically, the skin of the animal was cleaned, preserved, and then stretched over a wire frame to reproduce its natural shape. It’s highly-skilled work, which is why accurate items are so highly prized.

The development of arsenical soap by avid bird skin collector, Jean-Baptist Bécœur furthered the development of taxidermy during the Victorian era, but this isn’t the reason that the art of taxidermy has persevered. Instead, it’s the artistry of the craft. Imaginative mountings in lifelike settings that make use of natural materials and a dedication to the details of the animal in a naturally balanced pose has ensured the art and curiosity of Victorian taxidermy has endured considerably longer than the animals who made the craft famous.

Sources: – Why is Taxidermy Being Revived in the 21st Century? | Lancashire Evening Post – Art of Taxidermy in the World of Antiques | – The Curious Creatures of Victorian Taxidermy | – Taxidermy – This Hobby is Dead Cool | | – What is Ethical Taxidermy? | – A Trip to the Taxidermist | – The Curious World of Walter Potter