Victorians and Their Love for Creepy Dead Things
The Victorians were mad for taxidermy. One theory is that it had something to do with their legendary obsession with death. But given that Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert didn’t die until 1861—giving rise to elaborate mourning traditions that the middle class quickly embraced—I think it was more complicated than that.
From the very early nineteenth century, naturalists like Charles Darwin were traveling widely, trying to make scientific sense of the natural world. They brought that world back with them for research and curiosity purposes.
The middle and leisure classes were also always on the lookout for new and novel things to fill their free time. If you were even vaguely interested in exotica like a baby rhinoceros and couldn’t get to Africa to see one, why not trot down to the local exhibition and view the next best thing?
London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 featured the work of no fewer than fourteen taxidermists. The one who drew the longest lines was Hermann Ploucquet, who had published a book called The Comical Creatures from Wurtemberg. Its illustrations featured anthropomorphized animals, and Plouquet took the illustrations one step further by posing taxidermy animals in representative tableaux.
From the pert look in the eyes of Ploucquet’s creatures, it would appear he figured out that animal eyeballs had to be replaced with glass. Not all early taxidermists understood this, and their work is sadly (and perhaps for the best) lost to time.
There are plenty of bad taxidermy examples on the Internet, but please enjoy this lion assembled from bones and skin in the eighteenth century by a taxidermist who had never seen an actual lion.
This is the famous Lion of Gripsholm Castle, along with his backstory.
Plouquet was famous in his time, but the taxidermist who emerged from the era with truly enduring fame is Walter Potter. No one is certain, but he must have been inspired by Plouquet’s earlier work.
Potter (with whom I share a birthday; apparently Cancers are a little twisted) took the tableau method and went crazy with it, often with birds (many, many birds) and kittens. He exhibited his work in a private museum in the village of Bramber in England until 1914, and his animals do look incredibly lifelike and plausible. Let’s try not to think how all of these kittens and squirrels coincidentally died at the same time, yes?
The Guardian did a piece with some wonderful photography of several of Potter’s works.
Thanks to some adoring parents, we have photographic evidence that nineteenth and early twentieth century taxidermy wasn’t just for grownups, but was enjoyed by the kiddies, too.
And, yes, also by the Paris Hiltons and Kardashians of their day.
Taxidermy as popular viewing entertainment fell out of favor early in the twentieth century as Victorian whimsy was replaced by the very real concerns of industrialization and World War I. People also began to examine the provenance of the animals. Surely they all could not have died natural deaths, as Walter Potter’s descendants suggested.
Laura Benedict’s latest dark suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, is set in 1878 Virginia. One of the children in the novel is very attached to a balding taxidermy squirrel named Brownkin, given to her by her eccentric grandfather, an amateur taxidermist. Read more about The Abandoned Heart and Laura’s other books here.