Victorian Women and Parlour Art – Taxidermy (Part Three)

Victorian Women and Parlour Art – Taxidermy (Part Three)
By Eliane Pineault-B.

Like waxwork and hair work, taxidermy was another popular technique used by Victorian women to decorate their home. In the nineteenth century, taxidermy was everywhere from museums of natural history, to the domestic interior, to fashion, to art and in popular culture. Interest in this technique started with travel and colonization with the discovery of new species, especially birds, from South America to India, with amazingly bright and colourful plumage which became of great interests to ornithologists and Victorian audiences. However, since most birds could not survive the transatlantic voyage and that no photography could capture the beauty of the specimens, the need to preserve the animal, as if it was alive, was born.[1] New taxidermy techniques along with the importance of natural history education saw the proliferation of stuffed specimens on display in natural history museums and in private collections, as well as décor pieces in Victorian homes. In fact, taxidermy was so popular that most English towns had a taxidermy shop.[2]


With taxidermy invading every aspect of Victorian life, it would not be long until it was taken over by the fashion world. Nature has always been a source of inspiration for fashion and fashion has always relied on the exploitation of natural resources to create.[3] But the arrival of taxidermy and the availability of new bright and colorful birds were seen as a new creative outlet for fashion, and it transformed the millinery industry from the 1860s to the 1890s.[4] While the use of feathers on hats remained highly fashionable, especially if they were exotic, whole stuffed birds were also used. They were readily available, highly fashionable and advertised in many catalogues for purchase [Fig. 1]. Along with milliners, goldsmiths also used birds for their creations.[5] They would most often use the head of birds to create jewelry, with earrings being especially popular. The practice was in such demand that the import of birds and plumage into Europe almost caused the extinction of many species.[6]

The prevalence of taxidermy in Victorian society signified that the practice was welcomed in elite and middle-class households. Decorative objects including taxidermy elements, such as fire screens made of exotic birds, became highly coveted pieces for fashionable parlour and drawing rooms. Glass domes were amongst the most popular objects to bring and contain nature in the home. These were a type of parlour art done by Victorian women and made of materials such as shells, wax, leaves, hair, feathers, wool, seeds, beads, and taxidermy animals [Fig. 2]. [7] Parlour domes served as décor pieces, but could also be used as conversation starters and as educational tools.[8]

For example, the Patagonian Red-Crested Cardinal diorama that is located in the Library of Craigdarroch Castle is a type of object that could have been used for educational and scientific purpose [Fig. 3]. Indeed, the backdrop of the diorama replicates the natural surroundings of the bird, which allows viewers to experience the specimen like they would in the wild. Additionally, the preservation of the specimen signifies that it could have been observed by anyone with an interest in ornithology without travelling to South America, where the specie originates.

Professional taxidermists were employed for museum displays, hunting trophies and expensive décor items, but the nineteenth century also witnessed mass-produced commercial taxidermy and amateur taxidermy.[9] Indeed, several publications advised women on how to use materials around them to create parlour art.[10] In Art recreations: being a complete guide to pencil drawing, oil Painting […] first published in 1860, Levina Buoncuore Urbino provides instructions to achieve taxidermy at home [Fig. 4]: “Take out the entrails; remove the skin with the greatest possible care; rub over the whole interior with arsenic, (a deadly poison;) put wires from the head to the legs to preserve the natural form, and stuff immediately with tow, wool, or the like.”[11] Taxidermy, as well as the other forms of parlour art, seems to have been a way for Victorian women to reconnect with nature, especially within a world that witnessed quick industrial changes.[12]

 

 

 

Images:

 

[Fig. 1] H. O’Neill & Co. “No. 9,” Fine millinery: fall and winter styles for ladies, misses and children, 1899-1900, New York, 1899. Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/finemillineryfal00hone/mode/2up

 

[Fig. 2] Unknown. Diorama with three yellow canaries, ca. 1880. Glass, wood, and feathers, 30 x 18 x 36 cm. Craigdarroch Castle 983.001.

 

[Fig. 3] Unknown. Bird Diorama, ca. 1888-1901. Patagonian Red-Crested Cardinal, wood, paper, glass, & grass, 23.5 x 9.3 x 23.2 cm. Craigdarroch Castle 997.003.

 

[Fig. 4] Levina Buoncuore Urbino. Art recreations: being a complete guide to pencil drawing, oil Painting […], J.E. Tilton, Boston, 1871, p.259. Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/artrecreationsbe00urbi/page/n10/mode/2up

 

 

Footnotes:

 

[1] Rachel Poliquin. The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing, Penn State University Press, 2012, p.46.

[2] John Whitenight. Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession, Schiffer, Atglen, 2013, p.8.

[3] The Linnean Society of London. “Fashioned from Nature: Learning from the Linnean Society of London with Edwina Ehrman,” The Video Podcasts, 8 May 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vq8NnBdPVBM accessed 7 April 2020.

[4] Michelle Tollini. ““Beetle Abominations” and Birds on Bonnets: Zoological Fantasy in Late-Nineteenth-Century Dress,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide – a journal of nineteenth century visual culture, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2002. http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring02/206-qbeetle-abominationsq-and-birds-on-bonnets-zoological-fantasy-in-late-nineteenth-century-dress accessed 8 April 2020.

[5] Gates Sofer. “Investigation of a Victorian ornithological adornment,” V&A Conservation Journal, Issue 57, Spring 2009. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/conservation-journal/issue-57/investigation-of-a-victorian-ornithological-adornment/ accessed 8 April 2020.

[6] John Whitenight. Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession, Schiffer, Atglen, 2013, p.160.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p.8-9.

[9] Ibid. p.125.

[10] Michelle Tollini. ““Beetle Abominations” and Birds on Bonnets: Zoological Fantasy in Late-Nineteenth-Century Dress,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide – a journal of nineteenth century visual culture, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2002.

[11] Levina Buoncuore Urbino. Art recreations: being a complete guide to pencil drawing, oil Painting […], J.E. Tilton, Boston, 1871, p.259. https://archive.org/details/artrecreationsbe00urbi/page/n10/mode/2up accessed 22 April 2020.

[12] Michelle Tollini. ““Beetle Abominations” and Birds on Bonnets: Zoological Fantasy in Late-Nineteenth-Century Dress,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide – a journal of nineteenth century visual culture, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2002.