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The Flat Cap on ... Taxidermy

A few weeks ago The Flat Cap decided that he would pay a visit to his local town hall as he had heard they were filming an episode of the popular television programme Antiques Roadshow. For those unfamiliar with the show its format is simple. Members of the public take along their possessions and an expert then evaluates the item’s worth after giving a fairly detailed account of the craftsmanship and history of the object. Possessions can range from largely worthless trinkets to those that would command hundreds of thousands of pounds at auction. What makes the programme such wonderful light entertainment is the on screen rapport between owner and expert. And anyway The Flat Cap had always thought he would make good television.

Armed with a pair of stuffed dogs that had once belonged to his great great grandfather Bert duly set off. The dogs were a bit cumbersome and getting on the number 37 bus with them proved problematical so he walked the journey with one under each arm, stopping for a rest break every couple of hundred yards. The Flat Cap finally arrived at the town hall later than planned and was asked to join a long line of people that snaked out of the building’s entrance and along the high street. Undaunted he patiently waited his turn in the queue until he was greeted by a researcher named Lucy. Lucy smiled and began making notes on a clipboard. She asked about the items, their age, how they had come into Bert’s possession and what he knew about them. She then directed him over to another queue some thirty yards away. A young chap called Leon explained that The Flat Cap’s items were jolly interesting and just the sort of thing they were looking for. He went on to say that they would film a piece with an expert called Tobias and for Bert to just act naturally in front of the camera.

A further two hours passed by and it was finally The Flat Cap’s turn. Tobias was charming and began by asking Bert where he had travelled from and if he knew what type of dogs he had brought along. The Flat Cap confidently replied that they were a pair of golden retrievers; a fact which Tobias happily confirmed. As Lucy had said the expert then asked The Flat Cap how he had come to own the dogs and allowed him to explain that both were originally his great great grandfather’s, had once been family pets, and because they were so well loved the decision was taken to stuff them. Tobias said that this practice was known as taxidermy and their age was consistent with what The Flat Cap had told him. Tobias explained that taxidermy was very popular during the Victorian era. He went on to say that Queen Victoria herself had had an extensive collection of stuffed birds.

Tobias told The Flat Cap, and the television audience, that the father of modern taxidermy was a keen ornithologist called John Hancock. He went on to say that Hancock would shoot birds and then mount them. Hancock had made his name by exhibiting a collection of stuffed birds at the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. They proved so popular that every middle and upper class home in England wanted some. And it soon became fashionable for the bereaved owners of dead family pets to seek to preserve their dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters and so on.

Tobias gave the two stuffed dogs a good examination, occasionally pointing out the stitching, or the colouring and giving his immediate audience a lesson in the art and history of taxidermy. He remarked that both items had “seen better days” but were still excellent examples of their kind. He was never showy and clearly knew his stuff, or more accurately his stuffing, thought Bert. And it was evident that the sizeable crowd who had gathered round were in awe of his knowledge. After a bit more prodding of the two dogs Tobias turned to face The Flat Cap and asked boldly,

“Would you like to guess what the two dogs would fetch if they were still in good condition?”

“Sticks?”, responded The Flat Cap almost absent mindedly.

From somewhere in the background a voice boomed “Cut” and the filming ceased abruptly.

Bert suspects that the footage won’t ever be aired and that he’ll have to audition for The Chase if he wants to get on television. That’s fine by him as he’s always found Bradley Walsh a lot less serious than Fiona Bruce.

Having collected up his two golden retrievers The Flat Cap made his way to the town hall’s cafeteria, and because it was busy ended up sharing a table with Amy who had brought along a jardinière that previously belonged to her aunt (who had also been called Amy).

Jardinière Amy said she knew a little bit about antiques herself and volunteered the following taxidermy trivia:

  • The word “taxidermy” derives from the Greek words “taxis” and “derma” which mean “arrangement” and “skin” respectively

  • There used to be a taxidermists in Bacup, Lancashire that traded under the name “Get Stuffed” until a local councillor complained and it was forced to shut down. The premises now house a fish and chip shop

  • The Egyptians would embalm animals and include them in the tombs of pharaohs, but strictly speaking embalming isn’t taxidermy

  • Taxidermy dates from the middle eighteenth century

  • English taxidermist Walter Potter had his own museum in Bramber, Sussex. There he would exhibit scenes of stuffed animals dressed up to mimic human life. The attraction was so popular with visitors that the village railway station had to extend its platform to accommodate extra long trains of tourists. As well as Victorian whimsies such as a kittens’ tea party or guinea pigs playing cricket Potter would also exhibit deformities such as four legged chickens

  • Professional taxidermists favour the term “mounting” rather than “stuffing”

  • American naturalist Martha Maxwell is credited with being the first female taxidermist. She liked to create a natural habitat for each species she mounted in order to make them look like they were still alive

  • Putting stuffing in the Christmas turkey isn’t taxidermy

  • There are more than seven million stuffed birds in museums worldwide and museums also like to use taxidermy to record species that have become extinct

  • When Welsh artist Adele Morse stuffed a fox and sold the item on Ebay little did she realise how popular he would become. Images of “Stoned Fox”, as he became known, are all over the internet and he’s even toured Russia

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