Saturday, 16 March 2013

Full lives and hollow talk

The following clip shows Errol Fuller (1947- ), painter, sparring partner of “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon and author of such works as “Extinct Birds” and “The Lost Birds of Paradise”, both of which I highly recommend, talking about his collection of old taxidermy. He has some wonderful pieces; I'm particularly envious of his Shoebill stork (now known, through DNA testing, to be more closely related to pelicans than storks). It is revealing that four minutes seven seconds into the film Fuller baulks at using the word “stuffed” when describing the taxidermy of Charles Waterton and chooses instead to say “done”.

Fuller's hesitation when referring to Waterton's work is due to his awareness that Waterton was unique among taxidermists in not using a structure on which to position the pelt. His creations were hollow, he never “stuffed”; from an etymological perspective he remains the only pure practitioner of taxidermy (from Greek taxis “arrangement”, from tassein “arrange”, + derma “skin”) in that he eschewed all artifice other than moulding and stiffening the skin.

The above painting of Waterton is the work of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) who started life as a saddle-maker before becoming a portrait artist. He also created, in Philadelphia, one of the world's first natural history museums.

A self-portrait of Peale in his museum.
Three of Peale's ten children, Raphaelle, Rembrandt and Rubens, followed in his footsteps and became accomplished artists. Raphaelle worked for a while as a taxidermist in his father's museum where the arsenic he absorbed when mounting specimens contributed to his early death.

John Bull and the National Debt”, a satirical piece by Charles Waterton

Waterton (1782-1865) had a large estate in Wakefield, Yorkshire, it was here that he created the world's first nature reserve. He used to invite patients from a local mental asylum to come to his house and use his telescope to watch the waterfowl on his lake as a form of relaxation therapy. By doing such things Waterton became known as an eccentric. Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), herself no slouch when it came to eccentricity, had this to say about him;
He was an eccentric only as all great gentlemen are eccentric, by which I mean that their gestures are not born to fit the conventions or the cowardice of the crowd. His biographer, Father J. Wood, says, very rightly: 'It was perhaps eccentric to have a strong religious faith, and act up to it. It was eccentric, as Thackeray said, to "dine on a crust, live as cheaply as a hermit, and give his all to the poor." It was eccentric to come into a large estate as a young man, and to have come to extreme old age without having wasted an hour or a shilling. It was eccentric to give bountifully and never allow his name to appear in a subscription list. It was eccentric to be saturated with the love of nature. It might be eccentric never to give dinner-parties, preferring to keep an open house for his friends, but it was a very agreeable kind of eccentricity. It was eccentric to be childlike, but never childish. We might multiply instances of his eccentricity to any extent, and we may safely say that the world would be much better than it is if such eccentricity were more common."

Charles Waterton Capturing a Cayman”
by Edward Jones