11 Historically Important Works of Taxidermy

AMNH/D. Finnin
AMNH/D. Finnin / AMNH/D. Finnin

In a world in which we are so insulated from death, the basic reality of taxidermy can upset tender sensibilities. We disassociate ourselves from the essential link between a designer handbag and a cow chewing cud in the field. Yet taxidermy did not develop as a cold-blooded means of displaying hunting trophies, but as a significant scientific and educational tool. It enabled man to identify and characterize species long before photography transformed our understanding of the natural world.

Taxidermy has moved in and out of fashion, been adored and reviled, and has symbolized both the best and worst of man’s thirst for knowledge and tendency for ruthless exploitation. It has its place in history, but it has evolved and developed into a modern art form, a means of self-expression, and a respectful tribute to the beauty of the natural world. Here, we highlight 11 significant pieces in the field.

1. A Church's Hanging Crocodile

Suspended from the ceiling of an Italian church is a record-breaking crocodile: At a remarkable four and three-quarter centuries, it's the oldest piece of taxidermy in existence. Documentation relating to its removal from St. Maria Annunziata, at Ponte Nossa in Lombardy, in January 1534, proves that this remarkably life-like creature must be, at the very least, older than that date. This crocodile, later rediscovered squatting in the roof of said church, was put back on display in the eighteenth century. A number of Italian churches feature hanging crocodiles, the durability of the skin probably going some way to explain why these particular specimens survived.

2. The Duchess of Richmond's Bird

Dean & Chapter of Westminster

The oldest existing stuffed bird is believed to be an African Grey parrot which belonged to Frances Stuart, the Duchess of Richmond and mistress to King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland (1649 - 1685). The bird, of which she was inordinately fond, can still be seen in Westminster Abbey Museum in London, perched next to a life size wax effigy of the Duchess herself. She requested that the bird be preserved after its death—she died first, in 1702, and the parrot a short while later.

3. A Swedish King's Steed

Ingolstadt Museum

Crocodiles aside, the fact that so few early specimens have survived is proof that taxidermists had not mastered their art.  There are but a few venerable exceptions from around 1600 onwards—notably, favored horses or dogs. The prize steed of the Swedish King Gustav Adolphus is one such example. Shot from beneath him at Ingolstadt, Bavaria in 1632, during the course of the Thirty Years War, it suffered the indignity of being skinned, mounted and exhibited as a war trophy by the German opposition. It is reputed to neigh whenever war is imminent—last heard in 1939—and can still be seen in the town museum.

4. Waterton's "Nondescript"

Courtesy of Wakefield Council

Charles Waterton, who wrote Waterton’s Wanderings in South America—one of the most successful travel books of the nineteenth century—was a master taxidermist who developed his own method of preserving skins with mercuric chloride. Famously eccentric (he used to bite the legs of dinner guests and pretend to be a dog), he used his taxidermy to tease and provoke. After travels in Guiana (Guyana) in 1824, he claimed to have hunted a new species that resembled a man. Experts now believe that his "Nondescript" was actually moulded out of the hindquarters of a howler monkey. 

5. Ploucquet's Anthropomorphic Taxidermy

Photo by Beth Evans, from The Art of Taxidermy by Jane Eastoe, published by Pavilion.

The Great Exhibition, which took place in Hyde Park, London, in 1851, included a number of taxidermy exhibits. Hermann Ploucquet, a German taxidermist, exhibited anthropomorphic taxidermy: animals engaged in human activity. The Morning Chronicle of August 12, 1851 noted that Ploucquet’s exhibits were “one of the most crowded points of the Exhibition.” The Great Exhibition, which attracted some six million visitors, is generally held to be the turning point for taxidermy; many of the displays were of a high technical standard and utilized great artistry in scenes and tableaux that, compared to the simply posed species on display in museums, provoked great excitement. Queen Victoria recorded in her diary that his work was “marvelous."

6. Hornaday's Buffalo

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Roger4436

Zoologist and conservationist William Temple Hornaday (1854 - 1937) was another mover and shaker in the world of taxidermy. He worked for Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, which supplied taxidermy specimens to museums. One specimen hunting trip resulted in a display of two orangutans, named The Fight in the Tree-Tops, after which he was appointed chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. He heard that the American bison were being decimated and, though troubled by the morality of the exercise, went to Montana to hunt for several specimens. Hornaday was so appalled by the skeletal remains of so many slaughtered bison that he highlighted their plight, and his work resulted in the creation of federally protected bison ranges in the American north-west. His famous bison display can today be seen at The Museum of The Northern Great Plains in Fort Benton, Montana.

7. Carl Akeley's dioramas

AMNH/D. Finnin

Early museums displayed taxidermy in serried ranks for the purposes of comparative morphology, but as the nineteenth century moved towards its close, taxidermists were increasingly interested in recreating precise habitats. This trend gradually altered the thinking in museums, and resulted in the introduction of fabulous dioramas depicting everything from birds on their nests to sweeping vistas of the African plains dotted with elephant and giraffe. Carl Akeley, one of America’s most famous taxidermists, sought to educate with ground-breaking life-like representations, displayed in panoramic dioramas that replicated the natural environment. His work—including the gorillas above and the watering hole at the top of this post—can still be seen in The American Museum of Natural History.

8. The Earl of Derby's Budgerigar Chick

The 13th Earl of Derby, Edward Smith Stanley (1775 -1851), was one of the earliest gentleman collectors. Fascinated by natural history, he began to buy taxidermy specimens, then later commissioned collectors to travel the world despatching specimens to him. By his death in 1851, his collection encompassed every major group of animals and birds, and he bequeathed some 20,000 birds and mammals to the people of Liverpool, for a "nominal" £20,000, a sum considerably lower than the value of the collection. The Derby Museum opened in Liverpool in 1853, showing a mere fraction of Lord Derby’s bequest, and even so managed to attract 157,861 visitors in just 7 months—the building was too small to accommodate the crowds. A number of his specimens are now extinct, including the Long-tailed Hopping Mouse, the Swamp Hen, the Paradise Parrot, and the Himalayan Mountain Quail. He hatched the first budgerigar chick in Britain in 1848—and when it died, sadly at just three weeks of age, he had it stuffed. It can still be seen in the Museum of Liverpool.

9. Emily Mayer's Erosion Casting

Erosion casting is a groundbreaking new technique in taxidermy that produces startlingly life-like results. The process involves placing a mould on the corpse of an animal and then leaving the body to decompose. When the process is complete a resin cast is taken which produces a precise impression of the skin with every wrinkle and hair preserved. Sculptor and taxidermist Emily Mayer is one of the leading proponents of the art and has utilized it in her own work and for heartbreakingly vulnerable exhibits for the National Museum of Scotland. “The problem with erosion casting is that you invest so much in the process," she says, "but if any little thing goes wrong with it the specimen is ruined.”

10. Cattelan's The Ballad of Trotsky

Getty Images

An increasing number of contemporary artists utilise taxidermy in their work to produce what lawyer and academic Anthony Julius calls “taboo-breaking art.” The Italian Maurizio Cattelan is famous for sculptures such as The Ballad of Trotsky, a horse (originally a racehorse named Tiramisu which died of natural causes) suspended from the ceiling which sold for £1.15 million, or Bidibidobidiboo, which shows a squirrel committing suicide in a kitchen. Both were exhibited in a Cattelan retrospective in the Guggenheim in 2011.

11. Polly Morgan's Green Taxidermy

Photo courtesy of Polly Morgan

Art that utilizes taxidermy has become achingly fashionable. Its list of influential A-List punters appears to have kick-started a resurgence of aesthetic interest in both antique and contemporary taxidermy. The stigma that was attached to owning taxidermy has gone—along with a new understanding that contemporary taxidermy is distinctly green; much of this is down to the work of artist and taxidermist Polly Morgan who first captured the zeitgeist. “It’s a form of recycling as far as I can see,” she says. “When people criticize me I always say that the worst thing I am doing is depriving a crow of its meal. I don’t buy into the argument that it is disrespectful to the animal. Animals don’t mourn their dead, they generally eat them.” And perhaps the renewed enthusiasm for the subject comes from the public understanding that, as the disclaimer always puts it, no animals were harmed in this process.