Sunday, January 31, 2021

Cabinets, Cases and Cloches...

The beautiful plumage of the exotic birds set out in the grand Victorian display cabinets used to fascinate me when I was little. The irridescence of tiny humming birds with their disproportionate needle-like beaks and delicate little bodies, the exuberance of the specimens of Birds of Paradise, with their elongated, exaggerated forms and feathers and the gaudy vibrancy of the parrot family used to draw me in, as did the rows and rows of mesmerising mounted butterflies, insects and beetles. But unlike the showpieces of the entomology drawers, all perfectly pinned down, labelled and splayed out in regimental order, the taxidermied birds appeared to flit, perch and pose freely. Whilst this painstakingly-staged ‘natural’ state was anything but, it did offer viewers and my young self, an almost voyeuristic glimpse of the fauna and flora of remote lands and leave the imagination free to wonder/wander. At home we did have (and still do) a case of stuffed birds, albeit of a rather more modest type, and of a slightly tatty appearance. Despite their comparatively modest feathering and physique, they certainly attracted me and my marauding fingers. I was always intrigued to see how their feathered forms were mounted and remember now, to my shame, plucking down from the breast of the hapless curlew to investigate further. Under the plumage was straw, yet the body had a certain amount of ‘give’ for when I wiggled his impressive bill, the head nodded in a most satisifying manner. That poor beast with his funny glazed expression suffered a thousand indignities at my childish fingertips. I think his display companion – a fine perky-looking peasant - escaped unscathed, thank goodness and luckily I never gained access to any other stuffed specimens at that age…. The stunning effects created by the displays of creatures from near and far left a lasting impression on me. Although I certainly do not have any urge to pick and poke at mounted pieces today, when I visit the magical emporium of Deyrolle in Paris, I feel myself transported back to that childhood delight of seeing magnificient animals, butterflies and insects in all their glory in a beautiful historical site. As a child, the vast Victorian cabinets at the museum (Birmingham, at the time) seemed to tower above as did some of the larger mammals themselves – generally mounted to strike the most dramatic of poses. Rearing horses, roaring bears standing upright, howling wolves, serpents ready to strike, eagles swooping all brought to life the natural world, just as they had done for the first visitors to admire them. Over the years I admit that I also liked to observe the least realistic-looking mounted specimens which could, quite frankly, be sadly comic to behold. Like a rogues’ gallery in Noah’s ark, these poor beasts were immortalised with the strangest of expressions, often accompanied by contorted body positions that can only raise a smirk when scrutinized with modern eyes. Presumably, effective taxidermy is another case of ‘practise making perfect’ and the 19th century certainly witnessed extensive practice of the craft.
When the rather more erudite (and affluent) Victorians turned their ever-curious, eager eye to Natural history and the wonders of the world as worthy subjects of observation, the art of taxidermy came into its element. It offered life-like, three-dimensional tableaux of all creatures great and small, before the advent of photography and film or ready access to menageries. With our limitless wealth of multi-media documentation available at a click today, it is difficult for us to even fathom this comparative dearth of information. Nor can we imagine how extraordinarily exotic the first mounted creatures must have appeared, at a time when most of the inhabitants of the growing urban areas had little access to any form of nature or wildlife. It is hardly surprising that when the first preserved skin and anatomical drawings of a platypus were sent back to England from Australia at the end of the 18th century people believed it was a mismatch of different animals sewn together for a hoax. The Zoological Society of London – the world’s oldest scientific zoological establishment – was founded in 1828 by Sirs Stamford Raffles and Humphry Davy (of Penzance !), at a time when the lack of such a society and menagerie was considered to be an “ opprobrium to our age and nation”. Until then, natural history cabinets – wonder rooms or cabinets of curiosities - had piqued the interest and bolstered the status of private curators with their collections of exotic items, oddities and rarities, alongside rich specimens of plant, animal, mineral. These were, however of a personal or private nature rather than an open affair and were not in the public domain. Initially actual rooms, these cabinets of curiosity ultimately became display cabinets filled with a glut of treasures, like the hoard of a learned magpie. Such cabinets were the hallmark of intellectual refinement and culture, and were the preserve of the privileged few, but their influence was widespread. The same driving curiosity and desire to collect, observe and understand the wonders of the world was behind the founding of the first great museums. Taxidermy was an extension of that scientific approach. In the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crystal Palace, mounted birds and other animals were incorporated into the lavish displays that stunned the visitors. It laid out the riches of the British Empire under the rule of Queen Victoria and opened the door to a more public taste for all things stuffed ! The so-called father of modern taxidermy, John Hancock, presented his series of birds and amazed the public with the life-like nature of his work. Other specimens of taxidermy astounded the public – not least the elephant used to bear the lavish Indian carriage – the howdah. Fortunately, the overall effect in the exhibition was more important than the detail, for this was no Asian beast, but an African version dressed up for the affair, having spent the previous twenty years on display in a museum in Saffron Walden. A European elk that was remarked to be "all but breathing" certainly took the breath away from the visitors who deemed the creature to have been ‘petrified in his own skin’. Since the word taxidermy comes from the Greek taxis – to move – and derma -skin – that might be a suitable description. Certainly techniques to perform the craft proficiently were evolving in order to keep up with the increase in demand and the huge influx of specimens from all four corners of the world. The treatment of pelts and skins was perfected with the use of arsenic as a preservative and the Victorian approach to skinning and mounting was so efficient that it remains the same today. However, this must have been a gruesome, rather smelly process at best, but that did not deter the Victorians from indulging in all things stuffed ! Whilst professional practioners provided the specimens for both public institutions and individuals of means and distinction, commercial taxidermists flooded the market with their mass-produced work. Meanwhile numerous amateurs took up the craft as a respectable pastime -so much so that even genteel women were encouraged to pursue this form of parlour art by following step-by-step manuals to realise display pieces for their drawing-rooms. Given the scale of its popularity, taxidermy was the direct cause of death of countless animals, and the hunting and trapping of the specimens required brought about immense loss. It was not only used extensively for museum exhibits and hunting trophies, but became hugely popular in milinery as fashionable ladies hats and bonnets were decorated with exotic birds from the British colonies. Such was the demand for these feathered ‘ornaments’ that many species were threatened by extinction. Incidentally, the profit made from the Great Exhibition enabled its organiser, Henry Cole to realise his ambition of improving science and art education through the founding of a complex of institutions. Thus the Science, Natural History and Victoria and Albert Museums, the Imperial College of Science, the Royal Colleges of Art, Music and Organists and finally the Albert Hall were born. It is thought that the Great Exhibition was a source of inspiration -direct or indirect - for England’s most famous Victorian taxidermist, Walter Potter (1835-1918). Although still in his youth in 1851, Potter may well have been one of the numerous visitors stunned by the anthropomorphic antics of the host of stuffed beasts presented by the German Hermann Ploucquet. His witty tableaux caused everyone to linger and laugh - from Her Majesty Queen Victoria to the humblest commoner.
Widely distributed engravings of Ploucquet’s 'Comical Creatures of Wurtemburg’, accompanied by narrative stories, were subsequently made, and were certainly available to Potter too. A preface to one such book later stated that ‘It is not often that one comes across a scientist who is also what one might term a practical humorist’. Perhaps Walter Potter aspired to such a role himself, although he seems to have been a somewhat retiring character, happy to create and exhibit his works from the modest village of his birth in Sussex; Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities. Leading on from an early interest in wildlife, Potter’s mounted menageries were the perfect mariage of the ‘cuddly cute’ offset by the slightly weird and rather macabre. His whimsical scenes would generally mirror recognisably human behaviour and emotions. The parallels of life and death, Man and animal are bound together in a way that probably charmed the average Victorian, but is surely more problematic for most millenials. Modern awareness of animal welfare and a squeamishness towards death – our final frontier and last taboo in the 21st century – mean that Potter’s art is either adored or abhored today. However it should be remembered that in times past, the natural world in general was simply not seen in the same light as now and the Victorian world view was wholly different to ours. Animals were not only plentiful but often undesirable in their living form. They took on a whole new value once their fur/fleece/feathers/leather/skins/horns/hides/claws and teeth had been reaped in as lucrative assets. There may have been a growing consciousness of cruelty to animals – the RSPCA was founded in the 1820s -but it was not commonplace. Living creatures were generally seen as fair game, especially when most of the population across the imperial century lived no better than animals. Hardship and poverty took its toll whilst the ravages of diseases such as consumption, cholera and typhoid ensured that illness and death were often part of everyday existence for all classes of society. The subsequent fascination with death as the threshold between this life and the afterlife may strike us as morbid but must have been a natural response in Queen Victoria’s day. After all, she herself spent 40 years mourning Prince Albert ! Partly linked to this morbidity was the Victorian curiosity for all things quirky and odd – the freak show being a perfect example. Alongside this was a marked tendancy towards sentimentality and even mawkishness. It was therefore not entirely surprising that Potter’s work as the ‘World Famous example of Victorian whimsy’ proved to be so popular. Indeed, large crowds streamed to visit the museum in Bramber and large numbers of postcards were sold. His success was not down to the quality of his actual taxidermy skills – somewhat rudimentary compared to certain professionals – but because his work responded to a specific set of tastes.
The displays of animals, acting out human scenes, must have been wholly entertaining back then– with toads performing athletics, guinea pigs indulging in a game of croquet, gentlemen squirrels playing cards, louche rats gambling, rabbits attending class in school and kittens drinking at tea party – to mention but a few of Potter’s tableaux. The most famous of all, however, was his diorama of The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, drawn from the nursery rythme Who killed Cock Robin ?. This early two-metre piece was started when he was only 19 and took a number of years to complete, with its vast number of birds (almost 100) and huge amount of painstaking detail that would have mesmerized the visitors. His last work, the Kitten’s Wedding (1890), features costumed cats wearing appropriate formal dress, all made by an obliging neighbour and one of Potter’s two daughters. Naturally, the sight of so many kittens (or any other of Potter’s creatures) makes us feel uneasy regarding the procurement of all these furry martyrs to Victorian art and entertainment. The thought of animal sacrifice rests heavy on our collective conscience, especially when the art in question appears fluffy and frivolous and has no scientific purpose that could partly alleviate our feelings of discomfort. Yet Potter’s creatures were all collected ‘humanely’ – with their little life-less corpses handed over to him by farmers, gamekeepers and private pet owners alike. Apparently the monkey who is gaily riding a goat in one of the best-known pieces was recovered when the animal in question died from thermic shock. A market stallholder had thrown icy water over the thieving beast as a last resort after having tolerated the pilfering on one occasion too many! Ultimately we are hardly in a position to criticise past attitudes and behaviour towards the natural world when we knowingly and willingly endanger it today. The fact that animal rescue centres today are overrun by cats, kittens, dogs and puppies when there is little valid justification just serves to highlight our shaky ethical standards.
The success of the Potter Museum at Bramber waned over the years as interest in taxidermy declined. Tastes changed and mounted animals were at best considered out-dated and at worst rather tasteless and largely unethical. Little by little, mounted displays also fell out of favour in museums. The Bramber collection was maintained by his daughter and grandson but was sold off in the 1970s and moved to Arundel, then set up in the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall in the mid 1980s. In the early 2000s it was put up for auction at Bonham’s, having been divided into separate lots, and thus it disappeared from public view with many pieces travelling abroad. The attempt of Damian Hirst, an avid Potter admirer, to keep the body of work in one piece failed in spite of his £1-million offer. As none of the grand British museums sought to acquire Potter’s collection, this golden opportunity to keep a unique trace of social history was lost. This lack of vision seems all the more ironic as taxidermy has been undergoing something of a renaissance over the past decade. Ethical sourcing of subjects from zoos, safari parks etc on the natural death of the animals in question has rendered the art far more palatable. At the same time, innovative aesthetic approaches have made taxidermy a dynamic modern art form that is not only attracting purchasers but also a whole new generation of practitioners. Whereas the Victorian taxidermist was typically male, pale and stale, today the chances are it will be a young female – often vegan or vegetarian ! Most of these are familiar with the art of Walter Potter. I will probably never own a taxidermied creature, antique or otherwise, but I am currently mounting my own display of beautiful specimens of exotic birds, very slowly assembled from one of the amazing paper kits created by Johan Scherft. It is definitely a long process, worthy of Victorian parlour art, but for the less squeamish. I still can't make up my mind whether to display my mounted birds in a cabinet, glass case or cloche...

Springtime Sun...

Amongst all the noise and activity of city life, the calm of spring flowers offers a such a peaceful, pretty respite, especially this year.
Although I prefer the wild version of the common primrose or 'English' primrose, with its pale cream flowers, the purple-petalled primula, with its range of colours, from pastel to magenta is beautiful too, especially in the sunlight...

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A White Page...

I always love the beginning of January, when the year and world appears bright, fresh and new. And yet from most perspectives it appears to be a rather dark and depressing time, with the driving rain outside, the biting winds and bracing temperatures that gnaw away at all that is exposed. And at the start of 2021, we are cruelly exposed to far more than the habitual extremes of the Winter elements which lay seige to our homes.
That silent, invisible, uninvited guest - Covid - is still seeking to enter each household, steathily plant its feet firmly under the table, unbudgeable and unyielding, ready to systematically strip away all that represents hearth and home, like some monstrous cuckoo. As we have to respect the curfew and confines in house and home town, our thoughts fly freely towards family, friends and far places or at least ones further afield than those of our current situation.
In the face of all of this, I am still trying to keep hold of the strange peaceful feeling of the new year. This time it might not be a white page for us to write on as we wish, to start anew and script the days and months ahead. The paper is already marked by the passage – threatened or real – of this unwelcome visitor which has left its signature on our lives in indelible ink. So perhaps a white page is not an appropriate image for the opening month of 2021 but the light petals of the Azalea might be… As a flowering shrub with multiple symbolic meanings, some contradictory, it seems to sum up sentiments towards the present situation.
Alongside the usual associations with purity and calm beauty generally linked to white flowers, the azalea also symbolizes care for oneself and one’s family. In Chinese culture, it is referred to as sixiang shu – the thinking-of-home bush – and expresses homesickness and the desire to return to the family. How appropriate in an extended period of lockdown! Meanwhile, in its thirst for reading the cryptic language of flowers, Victorian Britain saw the hardy azalea from Asian countries afar as a symbol of resolve, reserve and emotional restraint. Supporters of the Temperance Movement even went as far as to use the bloom to indicate their abhorence of alcohol, although I have as yet to see a refusal of any kind of tipple in the current confinement.
For all its delicate, bright elegance, the azalea does nevertheless possess a potent, dark side. As a member of the Rhododendron family, its leaves and flowers are highly poisonous. Such is its toxicity that ‘mad honey’ is produced from its nectar, leading to confusion and life-threatening illness in those that ingest it. Not surprisingly, the azalea is therefore seen to represent a death threat – again most relevant as we are in the clutches of Covid.
And yet in spite of the unsettling overtones of this plant and above all, of this particular period in our history, I just want this flower to highlight beauty, hope and resilence in the Winter months before Spring returns.