When we think of taxidermy, we might think of hunter’s cabins or old, creepy houses with a collection of dusty trophy heads hanging on a wall. But there is so much more! For the last century or so, creative taxidermists inspired by Greek Mythology and stories such as Alice in Wonderland, have decided to bring fantastical creatures and their like to life in 3-D, using a mix of skin and feather from various animals. Let’s have a look in our cabinet of curiosities for some of the most interesting creatures created and the stories behind them.
By David Leggett - expert taxidermy at Catawiki
Monkey or mermaid?
For centuries long, the legend of the mermaid has kept explorers of the sea vigilant in the hope of capturing this mythical creature. Barnum’s travelling circus introduced the Fiji Mermaid to the world: half-fish, half-monkey. Fishermen in Japan and the East Indies had long constructed these “hybrids” by stitching the upper bodies of apes onto the bodies of fish, which were occasionally used for religious purposes. An American sea captain called Samuel Barrett Edes bought the “mermaid” from Japanese sailors in 1822, about 20 years later it ended up in Barnum’s travelling circus. It was so popular, that others copied it and it became a staple in many “Cabinets of Curiosities”. Even though it looks like an obvious hoax, which is easy to say in hindsight, many people still fooled many onlookers, no doubt adding to the mermaid mythology.
A mounted bear, standing up straight, in your house that also doubles as a table? It seems strange, but in the Victorian era practical or decorative items made from animal parts were very fashionable. Rowland Ward was a world renowned taxidermist in the Victorian era of Great Britain and was the founder of the firm Rowland Ward Limited of Piccadilly, London. The shop was famously known as “The Jungle.” It was widely acclaimed for its taxidermy work on birds and big-game trophies, but also made a lot of practical and fashionable items from antlers, feet, skins, feathers and tusks. These items included a “dumbwaiter” - a standing bear, holding a tray on which drinks could be placed, stuffed birds as lamp stands, liquor cabinets made from elephant’s feet. Rowland Ward also created a number of Chimaera’s, which is the name for any mythical or fictional animal with parts taken from various animals. Recently, one of these has been auctioned at Catawiki. This Chimaera was set up in 1936, presumably for a private client, and was built from crab, monkey, cockerel, duck and deer parts, with an artificial face. It’s name is Pajok, and it was supposedly “tracked and caught in the Sudan.”
Taxidermy gone rogue
In 2005, New York artist Sarina Brewer started a new pop-surrealist art genre, called “Rogue Taxidermy”. It marked a significant resurgence in the USA - not just of taxidermy, but of mythical taxidermy, also known as Chimaera taxidermy. It is an art genre characterized by mixed media sculptures containing conventional taxidermy-related materials that are used in an unconventional manner. This doesn’t mean there must be animal components in the sculpture, for there are a lot of materials such as faux fur that also constitute taxidermy-related. One of the sculptures of Sarina Brewer, Obsidian, is a modern take on the Griffon from Alice in Wonderland: half-vulture, half-cat.
Her winged half-goat, half-fish is reminiscent of Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid exhibits.
Another modern taxidermy artist is Enrique Gomez de Molina, based in Miami. By creating beautiful, yet disturbing collages of animal parts, he wants to raise awareness to the dangers faced by multitudes of species through nuclear and chemical waste, deforestation and human invasion.
Taking it another step further, Brooklyn-based artist Kate Clark adds human-like faces to animal bodies, exploring the overlap that exists across our cultures and within our histories - to investigate the characteristics that separate us from the animal kingdom, but more importantly, which unite us.
Within the last weeks, here at Catawiki’s Cabinet of Curiosities Taxidermy auction, similar creations have been sold. Keep an eye on this auction held towards the end of every month for all of these weird and wonderful creatures.