The Golden Age of Taxidermy began with the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. An English ornithologist, John Hancock created a display of birds that won much praise all around, but especially in scientific circles. The public was hooked.
|Great Auk and egg, as you will read about in "The Triumphs of a Taxidermist."|
Like pop art a hundred years later, taxidermy birds began popping up in middle-class homes. Queen Victoria even amassed a collection.
Of course, taxidermy was not limited to birds. Anthropomorphic taxidermy sought to express the whimsy of the time, by dressing and posing animals as humans. Taxidermists, like Walter Potter, created dioramas that were celebrated in artistic circles... though, it appears, not by 1890s writers, critical of English society.
|Walter Potter's Rabbit School|
The future Wells envisions for a talented taxidermist is horrifying and certainly develops the shrinking divide between human and animal within the art form. When Oscar Wilde criticizes his contemporaries in his fiction, we laugh, but reading this story makes me feel that Wells was forced to live among some truly horrid people. Brace yourself and read on.
THE TRIUMPHS OF A TAXIDERMIST
Here are some of the secrets of taxidermy. They were told me by the taxidermist in a mood of elation. He told me them in the time between the first glass of whisky and the fourth, when a man is no longer cautious and yet not drunk. We sat in his den together; his library it was, his sitting and his eating-room--separated by a bead curtain, so far as the sense of sight went, from the noisome den where he plied his trade.
He sat on a deck chair, and when he was not tapping refractory bits of coal with them, he kept his feet--on which he wore, after the manner of sandals, the holey relics of a pair of carpet slippers--out of the way upon the mantelpiece, among the glass eyes. And his trousers, by-the-bye--though they have nothing to do with his triumphs--were a most horrible yellow plaid, such as they made when our fathers wore side-whiskers and there were crinolines in the land. Further, his hair was black, his face rosy, and his eye a fiery brown; and his coat was chiefly of grease upon a basis of velveteen. And his pipe had a bowl of china showing the Graces, and his spectacles were always askew, the left eye glaring nakedly at you, small and penetrating; the right, seen through a glass darkly, magnified and mild. Thus his discourse ran: "There never was a man who could stuff like me, Bellows, never. I have stuffed elephants and I have stuffed moths, and the things, have looked all the livelier and better for it. And I have stuffed human beings--chiefly amateur ornithologists. But I stuffed a nigger once.
"No, there is no law against it. I made him with all his fingers out and used him as a hat-rack, but that fool Homersby got up a quarrel with him late one night and spoilt him. That was before your time. It is hard to get skins, or I would have another.
"Unpleasant? I don't see it. Seems to me taxidermy is a promising third course to burial or cremation. You could keep all your dear ones by you. Bric-a-brac of that sort stuck about the house would be as good as most company, and much less expensive. You might have them fitted up with clockwork to do things.
"Of course they would have to be varnished, but they need not shine more than lots of people do naturally. Old Manningtree's bald head...Anyhow, you could talk to them without interruption. Even aunts. There is a great future before taxidermy, depend upon it. There is fossils again...."
He suddenly became silent.
"No, I don't think I ought to tell you that." He sucked at his pipe thoughtfully. "Thanks, yes. Not too much water."
"Of course, what I tell you now will go no further. You know I have made some dodos and a great auk? No! Evidently you are an amateur at taxidermy. My dear fellow, half the great auks in the world are about as genuine as the handkerchief of Saint Veronica, as the Holy Coat of Treves. We make 'em of grebes' feathers and the like. And the great auk's eggs too!"
"Yes, we make them out of fine porcelain. I tell you it is worth while. They fetch--one fetched L300 only the other day. That one was really genuine, I believe, but of course one is never certain. It is very fine work, and afterwards you have to get them dusty, for no one who owns one of these precious eggs has ever the temerity to clean the thing. That's the beauty of the business. Even if they suspect an egg they do not like to examine it too closely. It's such brittle capital at the best.
"You did not know that taxidermy rose to heights like that. My boy, it has risen higher. I have rivalled the hands of Nature herself. One of the genuine great auks--" his voice fell to a whisper--"one of the genuine great auks was made by me.
"No. You must study ornithology, and find out which it is yourself. And what is more, I have been approached by a syndicate of dealers to stock one of the unexplored skerries to the north of Iceland with specimens. I may--some day. But I have another little thing in hand just now. Ever heard of the dinornis?
"It is one of those big birds recently extinct in New Zealand. 'Moa' is its common name, so called because extinct: there is no moa now. See? Well, they have got bones of it, and from some of the marshes even feathers and dried bits of skin. Now, I am going to--well, there is no need to make any bones about it--going to forge a complete stuffed moa. I know a chap out there who will pretend to make the find in a kind of antiseptic swamp, and say he stuffed it at once, as it threatened to fall to pieces. The feathers are peculiar, but I have got a simply lovely way of dodging up singed bits of ostrich plume. Yes, that is the new smell you noticed. They can only discover the fraud with a microscope, and they will hardly care to pull a nice specimen to bits for that.
"In this way, you see, I give my little push in the advancement of science.
"But all this is merely imitating Nature. I have done more than that in my time. I have--beaten her."
He took his feet down from the mantel-board, and leant over confidentially towards me. "I have created birds," he said in a low voice. "New birds. Improvements. Like no birds that was ever seen before."
He resumed his attitude during an impressive silence.
"Enrich the universe; rather. Some of the birds I made were new kinds of humming birds, and very beautiful little things, but some of them were simply rum. The rummest, I think, was the Anomalopteryx Jejuna. Jejunus-a-um--empty--so called because there was really nothing in it; a thoroughly empty bird--except for stuffing. Old Javvers has the thing now, and I suppose he is almost as proud of it as I am. It is a masterpiece, Bellows. It has all the silly clumsiness of your pelican, all the solemn want of dignity of your parrot, all the gaunt ungainliness of a flamingo, with all the extravagant chromatic conflict of a mandarin duck. Such a bird. I made it out of the skeletons of a stork and a toucan and a job lot of feathers. Taxidermy of that kind is just pure joy, Bellows, to a real artist in the art.
"How did I come to make it? Simple enough, as all great inventions are. One of those young genii who write us Science Notes in the papers got hold of a German pamphlet about the birds of New Zealand, and translated some of it by means of a dictionary and his mother-wit--he must have been one of a very large family with a small mother--and he got mixed between the living apteryx and the extinct anomalopteryx; talked about a bird five feet high, living in the jungles of the North Island, rare, shy, specimens difficult to obtain, and so on. Javvers, who even for a collector, is a miraculously ignorant man, read these paragraphs, and swore he would have the thing at any price. Raided the dealers with enquiries. It shows what a man can do by persistence--will-power. Here was a bird-collector swearing he would have a specimen of a bird that did not exist, that never had existed, and which for very shame of its own profane ungainliness, probably would not exist now if it could help itself. And he got it. He got it.
"Have some more whisky, Bellows?" said the taxidermist, rousing himself from a transient contemplation of the mysteries of will-power and the collecting turn of mind. And, replenished, he proceeded to tell me of how he concocted a most attractive mermaid, and how an itinerant preacher, who could not get an audience because of it, smashed it because it was idolatry, or worse, at Burslem Wakes. But as the conversation of all the parties to this transaction, creator, would-be preserver, and destroyer, was uniformly unfit for publication, this cheerful incident must still remain unprinted.
The reader unacquainted with the dark ways of the collector may perhaps be inclined to doubt my taxidermist, but so far as great auks' eggs, and the bogus stuffed birds are concerned, I find that he has the confirmation of distinguished ornithological writers. And the note about the New Zealand bird certainly appeared in a morning paper of unblemished reputation, for the taxidermist keeps a copy and has shown it to me.Follow me on Twitter @TinyApplePress and like the Facebook page for updates!