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Home » Books & writing

Squirrels and Kittens and Gators—Oh, My!

Submitted by on October 10, 2016 – 10:48 pm 10 Comments

Laura_Benedict

Today is pub day for Laura Benedict‘s The Abandoned Heart, and I’m happy to welcome her back to PCN. She’s the nicest twisted person I know, as evidenced by the creepy post she wrote for me last year about medical dolls, which I’ve barely recovered from.

This year she takes a look at Victorian taxidermy, which plays a part in Abandoned Heart. Oh, man, I’m going to have nightmares about the kids below for a long time.

Read on, and then check out Laura’s book!

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?

rhino

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.

reading-fox-sketch

reading-fox

drinking-cats

cats-around-table

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.

lion-of-gripsholm

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?

kittens

squirrels

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.

kid-with-crocodile kid-on-animal

And, yes, also by the Paris Hiltons and Kardashians of their day.

cats-on-heads

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.

Hmmm…okay.

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.

Photo: Jay Fram

10 Comments »

  • Lauren says:

    How is it possible that Laura is simultaneously the nicest and creepiest person I know? All I know is I’m staying on her good side. Plus – If *I* could do it, it ain’t taxidermy, what the hell happened to that poor lion?

    Happy pub day, Laura! My heart will never abandon you (especially after you cut it out and have it taxidermied).

    • Lauren! Seriously, I would never cut your heart out and have it taxidermied (unless you specifically asked me too). Because that’s just the kind of friend I am.

      The lion is totally my favorite. At the Cincinnati Art Museum there’s a 200+ year-old Japanese painting of a lion, painted by an artist who had never seen one. Oddly it and the lion are weirdly similar.

      • Lauren O'Brien says:

        It’s my favorite, too, mostly because it doesn’t look like taxidermy, but like something my 4-year-old nephew would bring home from papier mache day. Though I have to admit, as much as I give it grief, I don’t think I could do a better lion likeness. It has panache. Panache that looks like it’s been run over by a semi, but panache nonetheless.

        Not sure if all this is creepier than flying dolls or not. I’ll get back to you. 😉

  • EIREGO says:

    Speechless. The little girl standing on the alligator? Perfect for Halloween, I suppose, but YIKES!!

  • Jessie says:

    Oh, gosh, it’s like a train wreck. I couldn’t stop looking at those pictures even though they’re super creepy. That girl and her serial-killer smile! And I’m not sure the little boy was alive when this picture was taken. I now know more about taxidermy than I thought I ever would. Um…thanks, Laura? 🙂

    • Jessie, it never occurred to me that the little boy might not actually be alive. That’s brilliant! Hmmm.

      Elyse, how do you feel about the Victorians and memento mori?!

      • Pop Culture Nerd says:

        As with the medical dolls, I looked at these pictures through my fingers, whimpering not so softly all the while. They are disturbing! Like Jessie, I thought the little girl possibly murdered her brother and stuffed him along with all the other animals she killed and then she stood on the gator to show no one else should ever pull her hair again.

        I now need to curl back up on the couch, throw the blanket over my head, and hug my knees. Don’t worry. I’ll recover eventually. Just send brownies.

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