I noticed a fascinating book in the shop yesterday and had to promptly devour it – I really enjoyed it, learnt a lot, and inspected the photos minutely but feel a bit uncomfortable. The Art of Taxidermy (Pavilion Books) by Jane Eastoe is very beautiful, thought-provoking and not a little confronting.
Eastoe is a well-regarded journalist – and for the last few years a keen amateur taxidermist, and she explores the history of this fascinating subject honestly and clearly. She also discusses the various controversies and strong feelings that taxidermy elicits: it is often so very beautiful but let’s face it: very dead, and just a little uncanny. Like a lot of people I really like it but am also quite horrified by it. Eastoe explains very clearly the laws governing modern taxidermy and that these days, nobody needs to kill an animal in order to stuff it (except as she pointedly points out, those of us eating them), you just wait for them to die a natural death.
In the glorious (well, ‘glorious’ is relative – hummingbirds, giraffes and elephants might well have other opinions…) taxidermy heyday of the 18th and early 19th centuries scientific enquiry and burgeoning interest in natural history meant any great institution, moneyed tycoon or Victorian gentleman-adventurer worth their salt acquired vast and ride-ranging collections, many of which still survive – have you seen the popular Animal Attic across the road from us at the Otago Museum?
After WWII, changing social and scientific attitudes about the value of killing animals to order to display their bodies meant taxidermy and the great museum halls full of these strange dead-but-almost-alive creatures fell out of favour – although as Eastoe points out, hunters have always displayed their trophies. As well as these hunting trophies and museum displays, and their cultural significance and meaning, Eastoe also looks at the modern revived interest in the art and its use in media and film, interior decoration and the work of contemporary artists reinventing an age-old technique.
The book is really well-researched, written in an engaging manner, explores a number of issues such as how we think about and respond to death, and to animals; why these objects exert such fascination, and how to treat, and learn from, the excesses, both physical and ethical, of by-gone ages. And it is stuffed full (sorry!) of the most fabulous historical and contemporary photographs.