The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 675/Taxidermy—De Omnibus Rebus

Taxidermy—De Omnibus Rebus  (1897) 
by Oxley Grabham

Published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 1, issues 675 (September, 1897), p. 412–416


By Oxley Grabham, M.A., M.B.O.U.

At my suggestion that a small portion of 'The Zoologist' should be devoted to the above science in all its branches, whereby many who, like myself, are deeply interested in the matter could exchange ideas and views to our mutual benefit, the Editor has most courteously replied as follows:—"I am entirely in sympathy with your views respecting the admittance of taxidermal notes into 'The Zoologist.' I cannot imagine a science of zoology which is not dependent more or less on some knowledge of animal preservation: now, as to method! I will devote a section of our Notes and Queries to Taxidermy and Preservation of Animal Specimens, which will focus correspondence. . . . The difficulties I see are possible lack of contributions on the subject, and confining it in a purely non-professional area." With regard to contributions, I venture to hope that these will be ample, for most naturalists, be their speciality what it may, are of necessity to a certain extent collectors also. Few dwellers in the country have access to a well-stocked museum containing all the types and varieties of whatever branch of zoology they happen to be specially interested in, and therefore they either preserve their own specimens, or get a professional to do it for them. To many people the term collector is synonymous with exterminator, and I am sorry to say that in numerous cases this is only too true, and it is owing to the greed and the search after £ s. d. of these so-called naturalists that many of our rarer species, both of fauna and flora, are rapidly becoming exterminated; but I am writing now of the naturalist in the truest sense of the word, who only collects where there is the certainty of an ample number of living specimens being left, and where, through accident or otherwise, various rarities from time to time fall into his hands. Surely in such cases as these no one can find fault with the wish to preserve and save from decay any species of the animal world in the nearest approach to its original form and beauty, for when so preserved they are a lifelong delight to their owner and to others of a kindred spirit. Then with regard to the professional taxidermist, of course it is only right that as he has his living to make by the business he should be chary of gratuitously imparting his skill and knowledge to others; but the day has gone by when the knowledge of these things was held only by a few, and every first-class professional man is always ready and willing to give instruction for a reasonable quid pro quo. I could name one or two, regular readers of 'The Zoologist,' who, if I mistake not, would gladly contribute on the matter, as it is one thing to be told how to do it, and quite another to do it. No one can hope to succeed who has not infinite patience and a love for his work, and then indeed practice makes perfect. In these days when Taxidermy has been raised to a high art, as witness the beautiful cases in the national collection at South Kensington, where every detail is made as true to nature as possible, there is no room for bad work. It is as easy to be accurate as the reverse, but many men who can set up a bird passably well as regards form, fail lamentably in those niceties of detail, inattention to which completely spoils a specimen. How often does one see birds placed in impossible positions, legs and beak painted the wrong colour, the tint of the iris completely ignored, fearful and wonderful productions called rockwork covered with all sorts of impossible leaves and plants and bits of variously coloured glass, birds in winter plumage cased amidst summer surroundings, and vice versâ, and even the breasts of sea-birds whitewashed! Quot homines tot sententiæ, and so with Taxidermy: one man opens his birds up the breast, another under the wing, and another down the back; one uses soft stuffing entirely, another a hard body exactly the size of the one he has removed from the skin, and another uses a combination of the two, and as in the hands of a past master each method is capable of producing excellent results, everyone must choose for himself. With regard to preservative powders,—liquids, soaps, &c,—their name is legion, from the most deadly to the equally efficacious though most harmless. Most professionals pin their faith on the deadly ones; one man that I knew had his finger-nails eaten away, suffered from salivation, and the usual concomitants of mercurial poisoning, from using corrosive sublimate with the greatest carelessness; and another, a well-known north country birdstuffer, had to give up his work for a long time owing to arsenical poisoning. Never shall I forget one day when, on calling to see him in his workshop, I found him in a cloud of powdered arsenic, dusting it on by the handful. Needless to say with me it was a case of "Erupit, evasit, as Tully would phrase it." I bolted as fast as I could. My remonstrances were of no use until he found his health failing, and then he took to equally good but less suicidal preparations.

There are several excellent works on the art nowadays, both English and American. When I began as a boy to skin and mount specimens there were very few, and they generally contained a great deal that was new and a great deal that was true; but, as some philosopher has observed, unfortunately that which was true was not new, and that which was new was not true. To my thinking, the best of the lot was Captain Browne's 'Manual of Taxidermy.' As I write I have not my books by me for reference, but, if I remember rightly, he inculcated very truly at the head of his list of preservatives,—

"Contra vim mortis non est medicamen in hortis,
Against the deadly moth can I from herbs no remedy supply."

Of course, no matter how well a bird is done, it is impossible to make it exactly true to nature. Take a Knot, for instance, as one sees it puffed out in a round ball, standing on the mudflats. Perfection is not to be attained in this vale of tears, but still we can approach closely to it, and there is a very great satisfaction in preserving and mounting one's own specimens, when a very great deal more can be learned about them than could otherwise be done, for one is led almost unconsciously to study their various natural attitudes, &c, and the various little details that go so much to enhance the value and beauty of a specimen. There is nothing done without hard work, but in this, as in everything else, if a man means to succeed, he will. There is nothing like beginning early, for a boy does not take it so much to heart as one of maturer years, when, after having spent hours over elaborating a specimen, bird or animal, and having completed it to his entire satisfaction, a kind friend on being shown it remorselessly picks it to pieces from head to tail, metaphorically speaking, till it literally hasn't a leg to stand on; and as soon as his back is turned, the unfortunate artist kicks it out of the window, or plays hockey with it in his despair and rage. I have been through the mill myself and I know what it is, and, though decidedly unpleasant at the time, it certainly does one good. At the present day when natural history is becoming so popular, when there are numerous small and great societies, each of which has its periodical meetings for the exhibition of specimens, &c, it is a very great boon to the members thereof to know how to mount the various objects in which they are interested in a proper permanent and scientific manner, and so far as I am aware there is no periodical or magazine which regularly opens its pages for the discussion of matter of this kind. To do so embraces a very wide range, and a variety of subjects. One man collects the eggs, another preserves the whole or part of the skeleton of a bird, another keeps the skins for reference and comparison, and the fourth mounts his birds in natural attitudes. The same with the collector of mammals and fish; another may go in for casting models of his special objects. Then there is the question of suitably casing and housing all these treasures, and preserving them from the ravages of moth, dust, damp, &c. Nor is it only with Vertebrate Zoology that Taxidermy is concerned; there is the setting of insects and their larvæ; the preserving of shells, starfish, crabs, et hoc genus omne; the use of spirit for many of the lower forms of life; and many more objects of the animal world and methods of preserving them, all of which are included in the comprehensive title of Taxidermy. Therefore I venture to hope that, as the pages of the 'Zoologist' have been so courteously opened to us for the discussion and interchange of ideas and methods in connection with the preservation of the various members of the animal world in its broadest sense, there will be no lack of contributors to the matter in hand. In this, as in most things, an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory; and to a beginner I would say, have a few lessons from a careful first-class man, and you will learn more than by reading the best book on the subject in existence. It is when one has acquired some practical knowledge of the matter that books—good ones that is—and the interchange of ideas with others, becomes of the greatest use and assistance. One word more. I do not for a moment wish to pose as a first-class taxidermist myself, and I write rather to obtain information than to give it. One has to specialize in this as in most things, and a man is seldom found equally good at mammals, birds, and fish; but I am exceedingly fond of the art, and if those of my readers who have the same tastes as myself have derived as much pleasure from so harmless and instructive a hobby as I have, I think they will own that they have no very great grounds for complaint.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1939, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 83 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.