‘She had a cheerful, friendly nature and, never having had children, poured all her love onto her cats. When they died she had them taxidermised, then positioned them in what had been their favourite spot throughout her house.’ [Orphan Rock‘, Transit Lounge, March 2022]

Abigail Washington’s practice of placing her dead cats throughout her house may seem strange – and even ghoulish – nowadays, but it was nothing unusual in the Victorian era, when taxidermised animals were a popular part of interior design. Birds were particularly popular, as were favourite pets who had died.

John Hancock: ‘Struggle with the quarry’ [1851]

Taxidermy did not originate in the Victorian era – methods of preserving specimens for exhibition [as opposed to mummification, which is not taxidermy] have been around since the 1700s in France, Germany, Denmark and England, but it did not become popular until Frenchman Louis Dufresne’s methods of using arsenical soap spread to the UK, and new non-toxic preservation methods were discovered. In 1851, English ornithologist John Hancock exhibited a series of stuffed birds at the Great Exhibition in London. So great was the interest in this collection, and in taxidermy in general, that amateur and professional collections soon proliferated. It became so popular that many took it up as a hobby.

‘She thought about the hours she and Cornelius had spent together, at first with him teaching her about each specimen, then later when he showed her how to clean or repair them as the need arose. For the past year or so, he’d even let her perform some of the smaller steps, such as shaping the straw to replace the specimen’s innards, or making balls of black wax to imitate the creature’s eyes.’ [‘Orphan Rock‘, Transit Lounge, March 2022]

Another exhibit which generated a lot of interest at the Great Exhibition of 1851 was that of German taxidermist for the Royal Museum in Stuttgart, Hermann Ploucquet. His were anthropomorphic displays – animals displayed it in such a way as to endow them with human characteristics. His scenes – which included hedgehogs ice-skating, dormice fighting a duel, and hamsters playing cricket – fed the Victorians love of whimsy, their interest in natural history, and their obsession with death. Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Bronte all visited his exhibit, as did Queen Victoria, who described them in her diary as ‘really marvellous’.

Hermann Ploucquet: ‘Dormice duelling’

Eventually, the craze for anthropomorphic taxidermy faded, though there are still artists like Americans Jeannie M and Sarina Brewer, and Welsh artist Adele Morse, who use taxidermy in their work. Primarily though, taxidermy is mainly used nowadays for hunting trophies or natural history museum displays. #histfic #HistoricalFiction #history #taxidermy #booklovers  #OrphanRock #Victoriana