by Dr Annie Tindley, Newcastle University
One of the defining features of country house interiors from the nineteenth century to the present is their inclusion – even reliance – on displays of taxidermy. It is so ubiquitous it is almost like wallpaper: it fades into the background as we walk through these houses, an expected and almost natural part of the experience. But when did this trend emerge and why, and what does it tell us about country houses and their owners?
When thinking about the origins of taxidermy in country houses, we need to go back to the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when small displays of rare specimens were carefully collected and displayed in cabinets and rooms of curiosity, often consisting of insects, birds and eggs. These were rare and often exotic items, sourced from overseas, often the imperial, territories. Sometimes they were fashioned to be legendary items: narwhal tusks as unicorn horns, or phoenix’s eggs.
These displays were carefully curated to demonstrate the learned and scientific collecting credentials of the owner, rather than as an item of interior decoration. This was the aristocratic and landed classes as scientific and cultural leaders, devoting their resources to furthering scientific endeavour. From these private museum-like origins, specialised skills and craftsmanship in taxidermy began to develop across Britain and Ireland; take for instance the work of John Hancock, based in Newcastle. He took advantage of new materials which ensured a longer shelf life for taxidermy, and also invented several new techniques and developed new aesthetic modes which became commonplace, for instance setting specimens into naturalistic, often exciting, tableaux with painted scenery and plants.
From about the 1830s well into the late twentieth century, taxidermy became one of the defining features of the interior design and decoration of country houses and lodges, particularly in famous sporting regions such as western Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. It came out of cabinets and dedicated rooms into the rest of the house – hallways, dining rooms, drawing and billiard rooms – few public rooms escaped the rash. Taxidermy became part of the fabric of houses, rather than something rare specifically for display of taste and reach of power and wealth. Why was this?
It was linked to the massive rise in the popularity of field sports from the 1830s. Deer stalking, grouse and pheasant shooting and fishing for salmon and trout became amongst the most popular of aristocratic and plutocratic leisure activities, and entire estates were economically, architecturally and culturally reconfigured to meet the appetite for hunting, shooting and fishing. Taxidermy became a key expression of landed, elite culture, highlighting their residual military and leadership roles after they had been replaced in that milieu by the professional military classes. Instead, they exercised their military prowess in sport, and displayed the trophies of this new ‘war’ on their walls. Stags heads (trophy heads) were most common; either stuffed or boiled. The search was always on for the great ‘royals’ – those with 14 points on their antlers. But taxidermy also became an expression of a global elite culture and part of Britain and Ireland’s imperial dominion at the height of empire to go abroad to kill wild animals and display them ‘at home’, making them part of understandings of global empire in the metropole. Those landed families with imperial connections began this trend, classically seen in rugs – tiger, lion – in country houses. Arguably, this imperial taxidermy trend denotes another shift in the role and culture of the landed classes: away from the actual levers of power to a more ornamental social and cultural role. Hunting is nothing if not time-consuming and expensive, and so hunting as a leisured or sporting activity could be argued to be an indicator of the decline of the hard power of the aristocratic classes, and its slow replacement with soft power: culture, heritage, symbolism – an echo of their former dominion.
After a spell of deep unfashionability in the later twentieth century, taxidermy has become fashionable again, but among different social groups and very much uncoupled from the hunting element. This new popularity is much less about aspiring to be like the aristocratic and landed classes, and much more linked to the current trend for authenticity and the pursuit of irony.
Annie Tindley, ‘Sport on the Wall: the 19th-cnetury Boom in Sporting Taxidermy’, in Terence Dooley and Christopher Ridgway eds., Sport and Leisure in the Irish and British Country House (2019)