Treasures: How to get a head...
Taxidermy was The Blue Planet of Victorian times. In the days before television, it was as close as most people could get to exotic birds and beasts. If the earliest attempts were a bit hit-and-miss, it was often because European taxidermists, presented with a dead animal, had no notion of what a live one looked like. The worst results produced what was known as naive taxidermy. The most famous example is the Lion of Gripsholm Castle in Sweden. With googly crossed eyes and lolling tongue, it looks nothing like a real lion. It was stuffed, in the 18th century, by someone who had clearly never seen one. By the 19th century, taxidermy had developed into an art form. It was used to preserve and display hunting trophies but also taken seriously by naturalists and used as an educational tool. Dublin's 'Dead Zoo', the Natural History Museum, which opened to the public in 1857, is a wonderful example of how taxidermy was used to inform and entertain the public. Most taxidermy, though, ended up in rich people's houses.
As it happens some of it does very well at auction. On February 4, a display case of The Pheasants of the World sold at Victor Mee Auctions, Cloverhill, Co Cavan, for €8,000. It was a large, beautifully composed tableaux of 14 birds, each positioned in a realistic way. Although they came from different counties and would never have been seen together in real life, the ensemble looked like a three-dimensional page from an ornithology book. It was the work of the Leadbeater studio in London. This family firm was founded by the famous taxidermist and ornithologist, Benjamin Leadbeater (1760 to 1837).
Both his son and grandson were taxidermists and both called John. The younger emigrated to Australia where he became the Museum of Victoria's first resident taxidermist in 1858. The director of the museum was so impressed by Leadbeater's work that he had two species of bird and a possum named after him. The case sold at Victor Mee Auctions also includes a second hand-written label for Lady Henry Somerset, and is believed to have come from Sandringham House in England where a similar taxidermy case of hens and turkeys is on display in the trophy room.
Both these, and the pheasants, are classified as Galliformes (heavy ground-feeding birds).
It's not clear how and when the case travelled to Ireland but it was once owned by the Eighth Marquis of Waterford, who kept it at Curraghamore House. The marquis was famous for playing polo, and also for having ancestors that died in dramatic ways. His forebear, the Sixth Marquis, survived being mauled by a lion only to drown on his own estate. The sale also included two other pieces of taxidermy: a baboon mounted on a display stand, which sold for €1,000; and a zebra head (€1,600). Victor Mee, auctioneer, sees this as part of a general revival of interest in an art form that the 20th century found hard to stomach.
Not everyone wants dead animals in their living room. Some people find it disgusting; others find it sad. But time, and a greater understanding of historical context, has helped people to overcome their squeamishness, and a growing number of informed collectors are prepared to spend money on high quality taxidermy.
"People seem to be very au fait with taxidermy now," says Mee. "There was a time when they didn't like it, but tastes have changed." Not all taxidermy sells for high prices. "There are good pieces of taxidermy and there are bad ones. These were terribly well done, by a good taxidermist, and the condition was good. They'd been well minded, not eaten by dust mites, and kept away from the light." Birds, especially, lose their colour when exposed to sunlight and survive better in a glass case than in open air.
Mostly, it's easy to make an educated guess whether a piece of taxidermy will perform well at auction or not. An exquisitely mounted case of birds will be valuable; a moth-eaten fox will not. But, every now and then, there are surprises. In 2013, an African colobus monkey, mounted on a branch in a glass case, sold at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers, Castlecomer, for €3,000. It had been estimated between €220 and €350. "We found it in a house in South Dublin," says George Fonsie Mealy.
Just as the work of a famous artist will outsell a similar painting by an unknown, the label of a well-known taxidermist will add value to a piece. The monkey was the work of the London-based taxidermist Roland Ward (1848-1912). "He was like the Louis Vuitton of taxidermy," Fonsie Mealy explains.
Without refrigeration, bringing a specimen back from a hot climate was no mean feat, but taxidermy was big business in the 19th century. Specimens were sold to naturalists, museums, and collectors. In 1874 William Jamrach, a London-based dealer in natural history, advertised in Tasmania for four "striped wolves" (thylacines) and 12 "devils". The perils of transporting them back to London were overcome by putting them in a cask and pickling them in brine. The last known thylacine died in Hobart Zoo, Australia in 1936. Now, the remains of the animal as preserved by taxidermists are a valuable source of visual and genetic information about the extinct species.
See victormeeauctions.ie and fonsiemealy.ie