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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rodents, the Darlings of the Victorian Elite

     Anthropomorphic Taxidermy is a creepy, but fascinating subject. During the Great Exhibition in 1851, a group of stuffed hedgehogs wowed folks and made it an immensely popular subject. But it wasn't just hedgehogs. Dead kittens eating tea and crumpets, dead hamsters playing cricket and other subjects became popular. 
     The Victorian were passionate about whimsical fantasy and natural history so a “logical” result was anthropomorphic taxidermy. Death fascinated the Victorians and rituals of expressing grief adhered to stringent rules that were often implemented on an outlandish scale. After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria’s period of mourning, which continued until her own death, actually inspired a lot of art.  For example, they tired electroplating the dead to made ornaments from their body parts...gruesome stuff to our way of thinking. Taxidermy allowed (and still does) people to honor their pets by stuffing and mounting and preserving dead animals was also deemed important. Natural history was a popular interest for the upper classes.
A modern example
    In the 18th century, the European pioneers of taxidermy used rudimentary formulas to preserve birds for scientific study and over the next century, taxidermists invented non-poisonous preservation methods, but the work still lacked artistry and exhibited a stiff form...they looked dead. In the 19th century scientific and technical changes helped their fixation on nature, life, and death. 

     The world’s fair, The Great Exhibition in London in 1851, was designed by greenhouse engineer Sir Joseph Paxton. The building of iron and glass was made possible by recent inventions such as industrial steam engines and telegraphs. The exhibition housed 14,000 exhibitors and provided a platform for all nations to demonstrate their industrial progress. The most popular exhibit though was the anthropomorphic taxidermy tableaux created by Hermann Ploucquet, a German taxidermist for the Royal Museum in Stuttgart. Each diorama invited the viewer into a miniaturized world.
     Ploucquet’s work dazzled the Queen and King as well as people like Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Bronte in addition to the six million other visitors. Ploucquet's dioramas mimicked the style of the fashionable paintings and sculptures of the day. Queen Victoria described them in her diary as “really marvelous.” 
A modern example of a chess set
     Basically, the dioramas humanized the animals. There were landscapes of little animals performing human tasks. Ploucquet took the art to the next level, including scenes of kittens serenading a pig, a weasel disciplining a classroom of rabbits, ice skating hedgehogs, and action scenes portraying a medieval European folk tale. His stuffed animal tableaux were recreated in a book of woodcut illustrations, The Comical Creatures from Wurtemberg, that was published soon after the exhibition. Ploucquet went on to open a private museum filled with wall-to-wall lifelike animal montages.
Detail of the Bishops
    That was the beginning. Walter Potter (1835-1918) was the most widely known anthropomorphic taxidermist who went from preserving his dead birds to creating a huge collection consisting of thousands of stuffed animals is human clothing. At 19, Potter spent seven years creating his masterpiece, “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin,” which showcased 98 species of birds. In 1861, he opened his private museum in Bramber, Sussex, displaying his intricate dioramas, including a kitten wedding party and a rats’ den being raided by the police. His detail was impeccable and included jewelry, frilly knickers and fancy little brandy decanters. Later on Potter went even further by concocting genetic mutations such as eight-legged kittens and two-headed lambs. By the end of his life, Potter’s museum held a collection of 10,000 specimens. 

     If you are interested in this subject course books are offered HERE.

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