Every Man His Own Taxidermist

3D front cover of Taxidermy by William SwainsonI was tempted to give this piece the title ‘Taxidermy for Pleasure and Profit’ but the author is emphatic that no one should expect to profit by his instructions, and the reader is unlikely to get much pleasure out of the more gory details.

William Swainson published Taxidermy, with the Biography of Zoologists in 1840, as part of the celebrated ‘Cabinet’ series, ‘conducted by the Rev. Dionysius Lardner,  LL.D. F.R.S. L.&E. M.R.I.A. F.R.A.S. F.L.S. F.Z.S. Hon.F.C.P.S. &c. &c. assisted by eminent scientific men’.  (Other works in this extensive publishing enterprise by Messrs Longman that we have reissued include Thirlwall’s History of Greece and Sir John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy.)

By coincidence, it was in 1840 that Dionysius Lardner’s career as a scientific writer, populariser and lecturer fell spectacularly apart. He had married in 1815, and separated from his wife in 1820. The ODNB says that he was probably the father of the Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault (1820–90), whose mother was married to a Dublin wine merchant, but to whom he gave financial support until the fatal 1840, when he eloped with another married woman. Lardner himself was divorced in 1832, and the marriage dissolved by statute in 1839, but Mrs Mary Heaviside was still very much married, to a husband who pursued them to Paris, gave Lardner a flogging and then sued him successfully for £8,000 for ‘criminal conversation’.  (After the subsequent Heaviside divorce and dissolution, Lardner married Mary, but never lived in England again.)

Anyway, Swainson’s motive was to supply complete instructions on how to shoot and then preserve animals and birds, so that ‘the form and substance of animal bodies may be preserved from decay, and rendered subservient to the studies of the naturalist in his closet’. The art was ‘absolutely essential to be known to every naturalist’, but his methods would also be of use to travellers whose primary interest was not natural history, but could contribute to the sum of human knowledge by preserving those trophies which they happened to be slaughtering anyway.

Swainson himself was the son of a keen amateur naturalist and founder member of the Linnean Society. Born in 1789, as he grew up he longed to travel, and his father managed to place him in the army commissariat, with a posting to the Mediterranean between 1808 and the end of hostilities with France in 1815. Based in Sicily, he also managed to visit Greece, Malta and Italy, and his considerable spare time was absorbed in natural history. In 1817–18, he visited Brazil, and produced both a written account and a book of coloured plates of birds. After this expedition, he was proposed by Sir Joseph Banks as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

A promising career seemed to beckon, but Swainson did not succeed in the world of scientific London:  he had developed a ‘quinary’ system of classification which contradicted the now well established Linnaean system, and although the illustrations of his various publications were of superb quality, the textual content was widely dismissed as eccentric. Family tragedies, including the death of his wife, caused him to emigrate to New Zealand with his young family, but attempts to gain suitable employment there or in Australia again met with failure, and he died in 1855.

His work on taxidermy is detailed and methodical. It begins with equipment: from a double and single barrel gun (or a rifle for the bigger quadrupeds in Africa or India) to chip boxes for small and delicate shells, pins of all sizes, and needles and thread. Advice on collecting (dangerous snakes and reptiles should be left to the natives) cheeringly includes suggestions on how to get live specimens home, though the emphasis is on death – ‘Humming birds are advantageously shot when hovering over the flowers … but the charge should be very small, and dust shot alone used’.

The actual ‘stuffing’ of quadrupeds involves ‘arsenicated soap’ (with a warning not to get it on your own skin). Accurate measurements should be taken of the carcass before evisceration, which is described in minute detail, as is the removal of the brain and various other bits of soft tissue. Mounting the dried and preserved skin involves creating a maquette or armature out of wires which is then thrust inside the skin. Care needs to be taken, once the skin has been stuffed with cotton treated with preservative, and sewn up, to shape the animal naturalistically, and to mount it on a board. Artificial eyes should ‘of course, perfectly correspond in size and colour with that of the living animal’.

This technique, with minor variations, could be applied to anything from a bear or an elephant to a bat. Birds are dealt with in a similar manner, though they need more delicate handling, and the use of preservatives on their feathers. Methods of preserving reptiles, amphibians and ‘marine animals’ are also described, as is the mounting of insects and especially of butterflies. A further section gives instructions for preparing skeletons, including the various ways of removing all the tissue from the specimen – mice and small birds can be left in a perforated box near an anthill or a wasp’s nest until the flesh is all eaten, but you don’t really want to know about humans.

From the specifics of taxidermy, Swainson moves on to the formation of collections, from national museums to local and private endeavours: ‘the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford deserves to be mentioned as much improved, although quite unworthy of that university’. He also discusses the various principles by which such collections should be displayed, the care which curators need to take to make sure that the specimens in their care do not deteriorate, and the types of cabinets and cases appropriate to the different collections. The need for an accurate catalogue (and ‘a list of desiderata’) is emphasised. But this section of the book closes with a warning: ‘Let no one … think of collecting for profit, or it is ten to one he finds himself a heavy loser.’ The naturalist should not assume that the sale of his collections ‘will at all remunerate him for the trouble, the anxiety, and the expense of their collection’: this sounds like the bitter voice of Swainson’s own experience.

The second half of the book consists of ‘A Bibliography of Zoology; with Biographical Sketches of the Principal Authors’. This alphabetical list begins with John Abbot, entomologist, and ends (almost – there is an appendix of the unaccountably overlooked) with J.J. Zschuchii, another entomologist, who published Museun Leskeanum (???) in 1788. It includes Agassiz, Buffon, Cuvier, J.R. Forster, Lamarck, Linnaeus, Pennant, Ray and Gilbert White, to name but a few, among scores of other less well remembered scientists.

It also includes a short autobiographical piece, on the ground that since his publishers insisted that Swainson’s own portrait (rather than that of Count Maurice of Nassau) should appear as a frontispiece, ‘I have no alternative than to say something about myself’. It is a self-deprecating account of a life driven by a passion for natural history, touching and admirable.


P.S. Max wishes you all the best for 2014, but is a little worried about his own future…Cat 001

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