I discreetly rake sherds of exploded muffin back to my mouth while meeting the glassy stare of a roe deer. Its elegant head, neck and shoulder are paralysed in a comical look to the left and high up on the anaglyptic wallpaper.
I put down my trembling teacup with an icy ‘ting’ atop the snowy diorama of a fox seizing a rabbit from the Nevada sagebrush — entombed forever by the all-glass coffee table.
That coffer of wildlife in a domestic setting was beautifully realised and I know for a certainty that this is a family that eats most of what it predates.
Many present day hunters count themselves conservationists too. It’s a complex area, shot with emotional and political turmoil. Still, that cabinet of curiosities lying underneath the finger sandwiches, I found unsettling.
As a child, I dragged my protesting, convent school pals to the Natural History Museum on Merrion Street every chance I had. The musty whiff of decaying fur blended to the singed notes of formaldehyde and arsenical soap was intoxicating. The quiet vaulted atmosphere and mouldy ancestral scent still hovers over the beautifully-tended collection — drawing thousands of curious children and adults to its untouched mahogany cases since 1857.
Today, the ‘dead-zoo’ forms an important reference point for natural scientists and can rightly be described as an environmental treasure. However, the means by which most stuffed animals mounted the walls or threw themselves down by the fireplace in great houses during the 19th and 20th centuries form a sad chapter.
The fabulous bronze statue of Thomas Heazle Parke (1857-1893) guarding the museum entrance in sweat-soaked safari dress, mantled in weaponry and righteous adventure, says it all. It’s worth noting that along with saving many lives, collecting a range of specimens and discovering large tracts of Africa, former Surgeon General Heazle Parke, also treated himself to the purchase of a pygmy girl.
The Victorian gentleman, trophy-hunting at home and around the colonies, could enshrine a moment of exquisite venal pleasure by having an animal’s skin removed, shipped home and stitched up on a form.
For enthusiasts, taxidermy is not just a celebration of blasting a furred or feathered creature to kingdom come. Preserving an animal is an art-form that takes in a range of skills including tanning, sculpture and painting. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and all mammals can be preserved by mounting the skin on a wire or fibre-glass form called an armature. All that’s needed is a hide from any vertebrate and you can have that pet or prey forever.
The first taxidermists, as we know them toda, were upholsterers asked to crudely stuff and form the skins of shooting-party wins along with the failing chesterfield suite.
Taxis is the ancient Greek word for movement, and Derma means skin. The idea of a potentially dynamic figure from a dead skin was intriguing, but in some cases it simply went too far. Enter here the dreadful area of the anthropomorphic diorama.
Anthropomorphic taxidermy, a revolting, kinky pastime among the Victorians, has re-emerged to a degree with real stuffed animals staged in human pastimes and even clothes. Kittens, rats, squirrels and mice were the main victims of this gory whimsy in the 1800s — stiffly dealing cards, duelling and playing croquet. The vile collection of anthropomorphic taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918) was dispersed by auction by Bonhams in 2003.
Shock artist Damien Hirst made an inevitable but unsuccessful bid of £1m to keep the charming theatrics in one group. The Taxidermy Emporium is one of a number of braver studios which sell character taxidermy including a rather fetching squirrel lamp (www.taxidermyemporium.co.uk).
We are most likely to come across taxidermy at sale and auction in the form of ornithological finds and small native animals set beneath or behind glass in an attempt at a natural setting. Crumbling, wired against a painted landscape and rusty flora, good Victorian taxidermy is still highly collectable.
Display your pieces in low light in a dry room to preserve the colour in fur and feathers. Clean the species carefully with a feather duster or soft bristled paint brush, working away from your face.
Wear surgical gloves and avoid inhaling any dirt while you work as there is a small chance of the presence of arsenic and mercury compounds used in early taxidermy for preservation and insect control.
Museum quality examples of period taxidermy are available together with replacement domes from specialist dealers. For new pieces of exotic taxidermy — ensure the house has an ethical mission statement, where no animals are killed for use.
For the more faint-hearted, there’s been a surprising appearance of the mammalian skull in designer boutiques and high street stores this season. Harvey Norman offer up some whopping ram heads from €110.Perfect for rounding off a sophisticated rural look — and the clean sculptural planes of bone are less upsetting than dealing with the notion fur-on.
A recent bestseller, is Taxidermy by Alexis Turner (Thames & Hudson, €28.99). www.Londontaxidermy.com