The Bizarre 19th Century Art of Making Furniture Out of Animals
Anyone who knows a hunter is probably also familiar with the things he’s shot—because they’re affixed to the walls of his house. But, as William G. Fitzgerald points out in the August 1896 issue of The Strand, these “mournful-looking heads” are “mounted in a monotonous fashion.” Instead, wealthy hunters in the 1860s opted to do something with their trophies that was very much in vogue—and decidedly bizarre: Turn the animals they'd killed into pieces of furniture.
The idea for animal furniture sprung from another trend, according to Fitzgerald: “Its origin [dates to] a time when ladies adopted the hideous fashion of wearing whole grouse and pheasants. In the ‘Sixties,’ when this craze was at its height, the naturalists couldn’t supply the birds fast enough—at four guineas each.” George F. Butt, a naturalist and taxidermist who lived on Wigmore Street in London and created animal furniture, told Fitzgerald that “More grouse were worn than were eaten, and not merely the wings, mark you, but the whole bird from head to tail.”
After that, inspired by fashions from India, women commissioned jewelry made of bear and tiger claws. “Then followed various articles made from whole animals and parts of animals,” Fitzgerald writes. “One of the earliest designs was a horse’s hoof … made into a silver-mounted ink stand. Chairs were also made which were supported by the four legs of a rhinoceros or zebra, or a favourite horse.”
It wasn't long before whole animals were being turned into furniture and other statement pieces for the home. “To merely catalogue the various items of ‘animal’ furniture I have seen would fill whole pages of The Strand Magazine,” Fitzgerald writes. Here are a few examples.
Fitzgerald calls this chair “without doubt the most original ‘animal’ chair I ever beheld ... [it] belongs to that mighty Nimrod, Mr. J. Gardiner Muir, of ‘Hillcrest,’ Market Harborough. This chair ... is made from a baby giraffe, which, with its mother, was shot by Mr. Gardiner Muir, near the Kiboko River in East British Africa.” The unusual piece of furniture was designed by Rowland Ward of Picadilly; the dog in the photo is a Scotch terrier named Punch, who belonged to the hunter. No word on what happened to the mother giraffe.
The tiger that Butt used to make this chair was “a dreaded man-eater, which had devastated and appalled several villages in Travancore.” The very day that the tiger was shot, it made off with a 10 year old girl, who later died of her injuries. Destined for a man in the Indian Civil Service, Fitzgerald calls this chair “a capital example of ‘animal’ furniture. The seat is covered with the beautifully-marked skin, and the head and paws are so arranged as to give the impression that the terrible animal is about to spring. Observe the ingenious way in which the tail is disposed, as though the tiger were coiled right round the chair.”
There's no accounting for taste, as you can clearly see in the design of this “otter chair,” which was designed by artist Sir Edwin Landseer and created by Butt. “Surrounding the chair are some heads—those of a favourite dog, a Scotch stage, a wild Chillingham bull, and an American bison—the last three shot by the painter himself,” Fitzgerald writes. “Landseer always admired otter skins, so a friend one day presented him with several very fine ones. These were subsequently spread on the chair by Mr. Butt, the head of the largest otter handing down over the back in accordance with Landseer’s own design.”
“This accommodating animal is a young Ceylon elephant, modelled by Rowland Ward in a perfectly natural position, but adapted for the use of the hall porter,” Fitzgerald writes. “The hall porter sleep in this singular chair, by the way, should make an interesting picture.”
“It is quite astonishing to learn how many defunct animals are called upon to throw light upon things,” Fitzgerald writes. This emu lamp was “made to the order of a wealthy Australian gentleman,” Fitzgerald writes. “The effect … in the drawing room is curiously striking.”
“The moment the door is opened at Baronness Eckhardstein’s beautiful house in Grosvenor Square, this gigantic and truly formidable bear is seen flooding the hall with a soft red light,” Fitzgerald writes. “It was shot during one of its fishing excursions in Alaska.” Rowland Ward created the lamp and presented it to the Baroness when she got married. Fitzgerald notes that the bear’s electric light “can be switched on from behind.”
This particular monkey was once a lady’s beloved pet and “although her grief was great, she resolved to have her dead darling turned into something useful as well as ornamental.” She chose to have the animal serve as a candleholder “with quite an eager, officious air.”
Butt created this fruit and flower stand for the Princess of Wales. “The centre is a movable screen composed of a favourite parrot belonging to Her Royal Highness,” Fitzgerald notes.
“We next behold the foot of a big elephant fashioned into a liqueur stand, so that it may be placed on the table in the midst of a group in a reminiscent mood, Nimrods who may, perchance, be fighting their battles over again,” Fitzgerald writes. Rowland Ward created the stand using the foot of an Indian elephant shot by the Duke of Edinburgh.
This bear “was shot in Russia by no less a personage than the Prince of Wales,” Fitzgerald writes. “For years it has ‘waited’ meekly in the smoking-room at Marlborough House.” The bear was taxidermied by Butt.
This “extremely interesting and even beautiful table ornament” was made by Butt from the tusks of Indian wild boars. “In this case,” Fitzgerald writes, “the tusks were forwarded by the adjutant of a crack regiment station in the North-West Provinces. The officers of that regiment had indulged extensively in the noble pastime of pig-sticking, and had carefully preserved the boars’ tusks with the view of having them fashioned into some useful and handsome ornament which might adorn the mess table, and serve (almost literally) as a peg on which to hang many an exciting story.”
This bear, created by Butt, serves as both "dumb waiter" and lamp. “Notice the excited appearance of the bear,” Fitzgerald writes, “who seems to be perpetually roaring at somebody, and doing his duty only under very forcible protest.”
FOR THE OFFICE
“Record skulls of lions, tigers, and leopards are very frequently seen mounted as useful objects in country houses of wealthy hunters,” Fitzgerald writes. “Here, for instance, is a hall-clock firmly grasped between the jaws of a tiger which killed at least five unlucky Hindu gun-bearers, whose cowardice cost them their lives.”
Fitzgerald calls this letter clip “very quaint and ingenious.” Made from the beak of an albatross, it is “a relic with a history,” Fitzgerald says. “A year or two ago a certain foolhardy individual set out (as so many have done) to cross the Atlantic in a craft, little larger than an open boat. The adventurous voyager did eventually make New York Harbour, but he was in a pitiable state of exhaustion. It transpired that before he had been many days at sea, he was attacked by an enormous albatross … The bird was shot, however, and its head ultimately brought to Mr. Butt to make up the beak as we see it here. Doubtless that mariner is still reminded of his lonely fight in mid-ocean every time he files a letter.”