British Historical Taxidermy - Ramblings

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What Constitutes ‘Good’ Historical Taxidermy?
Obviously this involves a value-judgement, so a definitive answer is not possible. However, in my view, two things are required. First, the bird or mammal (not fish, because I think they are a special case - see below) must pass what we could call a Natural History Turing Test. Second the subject, its case and groundwork, taken together, must be highly pleasing to the eye.

So what is our Turing Test? Alan Turing (1912-54) was a famous mathematician interested, amongst other things, in machine intelligence. He proposed a test of machine intelligence whereby two interlocutors are in separate rooms and communicating via keyboards and computer screens. In his proposal, if one participant could not tell whether the other party was a machine or a person then (were it a machine) it had passed the Turing test. [Interestingly this turned out to be a relatively poor test of machine intelligence. In the very early days of artificial intelligence research it was found that very simple software, which could not sensibly be described as intelligent in any meaningful sense, was able to fool a competent observer.]


To my mind, our Natural History Turing Test would involve taking the mounted specimen, placing it in a naturally occurring habitat, photographing it, and then asking a competent field biologist to judge whether it was a preserved or live specimen.


I think if you look at the birds and mammals in my private collection, most would readily pass this test. Certainly most of the work produced by Thomas Gunn and his sons, by Rowland Ward and Peter Spicer would survive this test. Oddly I think, given his work is so popular, I doubt that some of James Hutchings’ creations would do so well. I suppose the extreme example of this is the classic Hutchings fox (see this example) where the pose is highly stylised and contrived. One suspects the intention here is to squeeze the fox into a relatively small case, suited to more modest homes, whilst still producing something aesthetically pleasing overall.


The second requirement (and this is more strictly a personal view) is that the overall specimen, groundwork, case lining colour and case must work together to create something that is an aesthetically pleasing product when taken as a totality. A good case should simply be a beautiful three-dimensional work of art.

 

It would be wrong to claim that taxidermists are successful in recreating natural environments. Mud flats aside (see the groundwork with these Turnstones by Gunn) it is very rare that the groundwork of historical taxidermists would pass a variation of our Turning test. Although I suppose the cases of Peter Spicer may go the furthest towards providing an exception here. Spicers ‘planned-jumble’ of vegetation and groundwork might just pass for something occurring in Nature. I think Hine of Southport (sadly I do not own any of his cases) is someone else who produces very realistic ground work and who can produce rocks that would pass a variation of our Turing test.


However, for most, the groundwork is stylised. The extreme example of this is Hutchings of Aberystwyth who produced very distinctive (and aesthetically pleasing) groundwork, but which is far removed from anything found to occur in Nature.


What good taxidermists typically achieve, is first a distinctive style (e.g., a postage stamp sized piece of groundwork by Hutchings, Gunn or Spicer could be recognised with something close to certainty by any competent collector) and second an aesthetically pleasing overall product.


Not everybody would agree with me about the importance of groundwork. There were a small group of taxidermists, from around the Newcastle area, most notably Hancock, Duncan and Cullingford who produced outstanding work, but in plain, paper lined boxes (see, e.g., these Snipe by Cullingford). These ‘museum-style’ cases, as they have come to be known, have their enthusiasts, but are not liked by all. The purist would argue that these cases are of special importance because in such a case the taxidermy per se has to be of the highest quality and cannot rely on the ‘gimmickry’ of faux rocks and vegetation. Personally (as can be seen from my collection) they are not to my taste.


For me, there is a third requirement, which is even harder to articulate. I love old man made things. I love old wooden objects with a beautiful patina. I love gilt with the accumulated minor damage and polish that only comes with the passage of time. Glass which was made in gentler times which has imperfections, bubbles and ripples is just so much more beautiful than it’s modern perfect, but characterless, counterpart.


In essence, I love artefacts which have grown beautiful with age and use. This is why I especially like ‘antique’ or ‘historical’ taxidermy and don’t like modern work. The age apparent on the green tape, or ivorine label, of a Rowland Ward case is, to me, very beautiful. The scuffing, patina and other blemishes on the quadrant bead on a Spicer case holds similar appeal. Some modern taxidermists are easily as skilled as Rowland Ward, Peter Spicer or Thomas Gunn. But for me, even the very best of their work will never have the appeal of age which is embedded in an historical case.


Why are Fish a Special Case?
Shortly after death most fish lose their colour (as, after some days, do the legs, beaks and any fleshy parts of many birds). So when you look at a preserved fish, most of the colour you observe comes from paint applied (with more or less skill) by the taxidermist.

The foregoing is something of a simplification. For example, early (up to the 1920s) fish by John Cooper (e.g., this Pike) have been lightly painted with a mixture of various golds, yellows, browns and greens, and the residual variation in colour of the fish shows through the paint to give a subtle colour variation. In Cooper’s middle, or transitional, period, 1920s to 1940s, (e.g., these Roach and Grayling) the paint is starting to get stronger and more dominating with less of the fish’s natural shading showing through the paint. Then in Cooper’s late cases the paint dominates totally (e.g., this Roach) and the distinction between a skin mounted fish and a plaster cast starts to be lost altogether.

Why this change occurred over time in Cooper’s work I have no idea, and it was presumably down to the aesthetic judgement of those executing the work. For me early Cooper cases (1850-1920) are the most attractive, but I know collectors who take the opposite view. Indeed, it is the later ‘scale-painted’ fish which tend to command the higher prices.

Whilst, in my opinion, many preserved and cased fish are very beautiful objects, it would be very rare indeed to see a stuffed fish that would fool a field biologist concerning it status as living or dead. The delicacy and subtlety of living fish, especially when viewed under water, has never been reproduced by the group of historical taxidermists (Cooper, Homer, Barnes, Anstis and Griggs) whose work dominates this field.

Conclusion
For me, some historical taxidermy can be stunningly beautiful. Such a piece of taxidermy requires perfect anatomical composition. It requires modelling that injects ‘life’ into the specimen through a pose that captures the naturally occurring behaviour of the animal and this requires a good knowledge of the subject in life as well as in death. Gunn, for example, was such a superb taxidermist, in part, because he was also an excellent field biologist and observer of wild life. Superb taxidermy requires an overall aesthetically pleasing composition, something that if on a two-dimensional canvas would make a beautiful natural history painting. And finally, for me, it's age must be visible. Put simply, the very best historical taxidermy is an exquisitely beautiful piece of Natural History, history.