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Review of a History of Taxidermy: Art Science and Bad Taste

Discussion in 'Taxidermy History' started by PA, Mar 12, 2011.

  1. PA

    PA Well-Known Member

    Review of a History of Taxidermy: Art Science and Bad Taste

    Many the people on this forum subscribe to Breakthrough, the pre-eminent periodical on taxidermy and wildlife art (I hate to use magazine to describe this publication). In the latest issue there is a review of the new Pat Morris book, “A History of Taxidermy: Art Science and Bad Taste.” In the latest issue, Larry Blomquist did an excellent job of succinctly describing the book and indicating that copies are available through Breakthrough. I am here to offer another review on this forum which I feel has as wide an audience as Breakthrough itself. WASCO, the purveyors of information supplied by its many contributors, should be thanked over and over for maintaining this site which connects wildlife artists from all over the world through this great on-line communication forum. I try to contribute as much as time allows, which holding a full-time job doesn’t allow as much as I might want. So here is my go at the book.

    First off, something more should be said about the author. Dr. Morris had a distinguished career as a professor teaching zoology at a university in London. He specialized in mammalogy and produced many undergraduate and graduate students who people various agencies and institutions around the world. One former student works at the American Museum of Natural History in New York as a curator. Pat also published some works to help the general public understand mammalogy, for example, a semi-technical work on Hedgehogs, a beloved British mammal, a copy of which was given to me almost 20 years ago when I met Pat. I, myself, having attained a Masters Degree in Mammalogy with my thesis dealing with Porcupines, and having a similar interest in the history of taxidermy, seems coincidental on some higher plane. Pat, I don’t believe has done much, if any, taxidermy, but is quite acquainted with skinning and preserving specimens and produced a very nice little scholarly booklet on the preservation of mammalian specimens for scientific study.

    I first became aware of Dr. Morris about 1984-5 when I began in earnest a fervent interest in the history of scientific preparation which spread to include taxidermy. A friend connected with the Smithsonian forwarded a copy of a bibliography that Pat had left with folks there during a visit which listed his initial foray in attempting to gather all titles of books dealing with taxidermy. I recall he was keen to get a copy of the three Annual Reports of the Society of American Taxidermists. These are exceedingly rare in collections anywhere. There was indication in the bibliography that he had visited libraries in many of the large American Natural History Museums. In those days there were no on-line Google searches or even computerized libraries and information took years to assemble. In 1989, I published a bibliography through our museum entitled "Annotated Bibliography on Preparation, Taxidermy and Collection Management of Vertebrates with Emphasis on Birds, S P. Rogers, M. A. Schmidt, and T. Gütebier. Carnegie Museum of Natural History Special Publication 15, 189 pp.", and this may have precipitated Pat making the trip to Pittsburgh 20 years ago.

    Pat is connected with many people who collect taxidermy books or publish on the history of the subject. He visited Floyd Easterman’s legendary collection begun by William T. Hornaday and passed on through John Moyer to Floyd at Milwaukee Public Museum. He may have come initially to view my collection, as I traded a book I had whisked out of England through a book dealer, a copy of which he had never seen at that time. We were indeed combatants in the quest to build libraries of taxidermy, but, in the end, Pat certainly won the battle and probably has the largest taxidermy library in the world. As those who collect books on taxidermy are aware, our collections dwarf those held at any of the large natural history libraries anywhere. Pat, and many others including myself, have much larger taxidermy libraries than the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the Field Museum, or even the American Museum of Natural History.

    The work to assemble the literature is one facet one must engage in to write a book such as I am reviewing here. The second is to study the actual objects that were produced by the taxidermists. Being in England, Pat could actually purchase cases of taxidermy containing protected birds and mammals, which were the standard way of producing decorative taxidermy through much of the Victorian era as well as before and after. The network of buyers and sellers in taxidermy were well acquainted with Pat and his desire to get example pieces from all of the known historic taxidermists in England. Deals were struck, and Pat assembled a great collective of pieces, as well as a network of friends throughout the country who supplied specimens to photograph and study. Many of these individuals werementioned in the first two paragraphs in the acknowledgment section of the book. Pat also travelled widely to visit museums and see publically displayed pieces of taxidermy around the world, and, as a researcher with a distinguished career, was able to get behind-the-scenes tours of the "un-displayed" pieces – some good and some bad.

    The literature and the objects are what gives Pat a leg up in writing this comprehensive book on taxidermy. His work is reasonably worldwide in coverage but, of course, concentrates on England and those objects and taxidermists with which he is most familiar. He points out that the American chapter is lacking in breadth and that someone else will need to write a definitive book on the history of taxidermy in America. I believe Mr. Blomquist intimated that same desire, but to produce a book of equal thoroughness as Pat's would take someone like myself a LOT of time, or would need contributions by the few “American versions” of Pat Morris, like myself, John Janelli, Richard Chistoforo, Dave Schwendeman, and Larry Blomquist, or those with great interest in the subject as folks who frequent the Taxidermy History section of this forum (you know who you are).

    The book itself is broken into 12 chapters. The first two chapters after the basic introduction read like a chronology of the hunt for the earliest examples of taxidermy. Pat travelled to the four corners of the world to find the taxidermy pieces that still exist from the earliest of times. He made trips to many countries to visit old taxidermists and museums with specimens. One of them, Yngve Lowegren in Malmo Sweden, a mentor of the third author in the bibliography I published 22 years ago, who had a similar quest and had published on aspects of it in his book "Djurens Varld, En Popularvetenskaplig Franstallnings av Djurens" in 1964, and, more pointedly, in "Forna Tiders Djurkonservering" in 1978 seeking out the oldest specimens in existence. Yngve was in his 80s then but still had a sharp mind, from what I hear.

    Many people wish to know the earliest specimens that exist – most think of the famous rhinoceros in Italy, which appeared originally in the literature originally by Shufeldt in his publication in the Smithsonian publication on Taxidermy in 1892 and repeated in John Moyer's book. Unfortunately this specimen didn’t exist – perhaps because Shufeldt didn’t read Italian. Pat and I both discovered this specimen didn’t exist from another taxidermy historian from Italy. It was mentioned in this forum a couple times. For example in the year 2000 at http://www.taxidermy.net/forums/IndustryArticles/00/i/00A7496A0A.html

    The advent of Google searches allows for easy retrieval of information that wasn’t available years ago. For example, I was searching for how to place an umlaut over the “o” in Lowegren's last name and came upon a nice piece on the earliest history of rhinos in Europe at http://www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/ref_files/1175860316.pdf
    At least it was published in English.

    Pat chronicles his many searches, including this rhino or what existed instead of it, the earliest other mammals, the crocodylians that existed in churches during the Renaissance, bird taxidermy, etc., and even examples of early humans being mounted that were prepared by the Verreaux and others. See this forum article


    There are sections of the book that deal with inventions of techniques and who gets credit for inventing them, and ways of displaying specimens in dioramas or habitat groups – all subjects that frame an interesting story about the development of taxidermy in Europe and across the pond.

    There is even a chapter on taxidermy literature – surprise, surprise …

    I don’t wish to spend too much time reviewing all the details of this excellent well illustrated book, as is engenders great anticipation as you go from subject to subject dealing with a topic that is not well covered by any one source. It is by far the best of the roughly ten books I have on my shelf written by Pat. I would also be remiss to not mention the work of Mary, Pat's devoted wife, without whom much of his work couldn't have been done. She is the typesetter, editor, companion, and all around Gal Friday that one needs to produce such works as they have published in the last decade (MPM Publishing stands for Mary and Pat Morris).

    I heard from Pat in 2010 when he visited in Pittsburgh that he intended on attending the this year's World Show in the states. I also heard this from Ken Edwards ( http://www.taxidermy.net/forum/index.php/topic,245981.0.html ),
    and also from John Janelli, and others besides the Larry Blomquist in the Breakthrough Review article.

    I encourage everyone to purchase a copy of this book, available though Breakthrough, and if you are going to the World Show, get it autographed. Pat will be giving a lecture at the show and I urge you to meet him and his wife. His is a scholar and a gentleman.