Why, taking Silas Wegg on his walk through Clerkenwell towards Boffin’s Bower and the Roman Empire, did Dickens make him stop at Mr Venus’s taxidermy shop? Prosaically, we could say that despite all his experience with serialised fiction, he had become engrossed in the drama and pathos of Chapter VI and had over-written Part 2; he needed a short, comic episode to fill the place of the material that eventually became Chapter X in the next part. Dickens went on his own walk through Seven Dials with his illustrator, Marcus Stone, and visited a taxidermist called Willis, whose assistant and shop subsequently appeared, made over in Dickens’s comic-grotesque mode, in Chapter VII.
Yet there is more to Wegg’s visit to Mr Venus and his shop with its stock of ‘Bones, warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto … Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious’ than a convenient way to fill a few pages. The stock of Mr Venus’s shop is not, in fact, the first appearance that taxidermy makes in the novel. In the feminine, fashionable part of the main room at Boffin’s Bower – away from Mr Boffin’s settle, the gin-and-hot-water kit and the resplendent pie – Mrs Boffin’s ‘flowery land’ is decorated with ‘such hollow ornamentation as stuffed birds and waxen fruit under glass-shades’. Just like the lurid floral carpet, the taxidermy cases that represent ‘fashion’ in Mrs Boffin’s part of the room seem to be a travesty of honest nature, a lifeless, domesticated parody of the natural world. Before Venus’s shop was conceived, the idea of taxidermy was present in the novel’s texture.
As Wegg looks into the dark window of the shop, little is visible save a few dried sticks, and ‘two preserved frogs fighting a small-sword duel’, perhaps a little like these, and recalling the bronze group of duelling toads that Dickens kept on his own writing desk. Venus is working on a small bird, which lies on the counter ready to be mounted, with a wire in its breast ‘as if it were Cock Robin, the hero of the ballad, and Mr Venus were the sparrow with his bow and arrow, and Mr Wegg were the fly, with his little eye.’ These two examples of Mr Venus’s art (later in the chapter he sits ‘surrounded by the lovely trophies of my art’) recall the mid-nineteenth century vogue for anthropomorphic taxidermy. Taxidermy cases showing animals in human attitudes and narratives were displayed at the Crystal Palace, where they were admired by Queen Victoria, and there were a number of taxidermists specialising in these cases. The most famous exponent of anthropomorphic taxidermy was Walter Potter, who exhibited a case titled Who Killed Cock Robin in the mid-1850s to both notoriety and acclaim. Potter’s cases were very well known, and were housed in a museum in the Sussex village of Bramber where he lived: it’s certainly possible that there is a reference to Potter’s case here in the comparison of the bird to Cock Robin. Later on in the chapter, a boy comes to collect a stuffed canary that Venus has been working on. Holding up the glass case, Venus whimpers ‘There’s animation! On a twig, making up his mind to hop. Take care of him; he’s a lovely specimen.’ The art of taxidermy is to convey animation: to make the preserved and moulded skin of a bird or animal resemble the living, breathing, moving creature it once was.
Taxidermy was hugely popular during the Victorian period. As Pat Morris has shown, by the latter decades of the nineteenth century, most large towns had a taxidermist in the high street (even if they also had to turn their hands to allied trades – one such, in Haverhill, Suffolk, was taxidermist, photographer and hairdresser all in the same shop). At the upper end of the trade were shops like that of Rowland Ward in Piccadilly: Ward, perhaps the most skilful taxidermist of his time, produced extremely expensive, large cases for the wealthy (many of his cases can be seen at Audley End House). A contemporary equivalent might be Deyrolle in Paris. Mr Venus’s shop is clearly at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps more like Hoard’s in Horsham, (pictured here in 1902 about halfway down the page), or more recently, Get Stuffed. Taxidermy dramatically declined in popularity during the early decades of the twentieth century and for Modernists became a synecdoche for the worst excesses of Victorian vulgarity and sentimental banality.
In the last decade or so, taxidermy has become very fashionable, and whereas specimens used to be thrown away so that their glass domes could be sold separately, now Victorian taxidermy is highly sought after, and more recent specimens also fetch high prices. The sale of the collections of the Walter Potter museum in 2003 attracted a great deal of publicity, and although the collection was broken up and sold separately, there was an abortive bid by Damien Hirst to buy the entire collection.
Hirst’s interest in the Potter collection is not surprising, for the revival of interest in taxidermy can be dated back to Hirst’s notorious series of vitrines containing animals preserved in formaldehyde. The title of the first of this series, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) signals very clearly the contradiction at the heart of taxidermy’s illusion of animation: unlike in the wildlife documentary, animals had to die to make these pieces of art, yet the piece offers the illusion of lifelikeness. More recent artists working with taxidermy have continued to expound this contradiction. Lisa Black, for example, makes objects in which the animal’s skin has been peeled back to expose a mechanism beneath, or is interrupted by visble metal joints and fastenings. Kelly McCallum produces pieces in which Victorian taxidermy specimens are embellished with golden maggots, and jewelled parasites. These artists make explicit what is always implicit in taxidermy: that it is always about death, even when – especially when – it looks most alive: ‘There’s animation!’
Perhaps, then, it isn’t simply happenstance that a novel that begins with three chapters that all meditate on the body of a dead man, should find its comic relief in a visit to a taxidermist’s shop, where there are dead bodies everywhere – in glass bottles, fragmented into their constituent bones, and given the illusion being still alive by art. In this chapter taxidermy is transformed from a hollow simulacrum of nature, a fashion item co-extensive with the Veneerings’ bran-new furnishings, to a work of art that speaks to the preoccupation with death announced in the novel’s opening chapters.
Dr Nicola Bown, Senior Lecturer in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.