Exotic animal visitors to Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries were more frequently dead than alive. Taxidermists relied on secondhand, or even thirdhand, accounts of the living anatomy of creatures reduced to dried skins, resulting in some wildly inaccurate specimens. Yet like the botched “Beast Jesus” restoration in Spain, people now love these bastardizations of nature for their fantastic faults.
Misinterpretations of the natural world go back far beyond taxidermy. Medieval bestiaries featured whales that could disguise themselves as islands, and water-purifying unicorns. And there are famous examples in art like the 1515 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer of a rhinoceros, an animal he’d never seen, which he depicted sporting what appears like actual armor.
Taxidermy was just another way to interpret biology, and morphed growing research on biodiversity with local knowledge. For instance, the first wombat to arrive in England was preserved in the stance of a British squirrel. It’s still on view at the Great North Museum in Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Here are a few examples of these harrowing taxidermy examples by people who only had a vague idea of the real animal.
Lion (18th Century)
Gripsholm Castle, Mariefred, Sweden
In medieval lion heraldry, the big cats are often depicted in profile, their tongues flailing out like flames. When an 18th-century taxidermist attempted to shape the hide of King Frederick the I of Sweden’s dead lion, a 1731 gift from Algiers, he likely relied on some of this imagery. Unfortunately, what looks regal from the side looks insane from the front, as seen in the photograph at the top of this post.
The lion of Gripsholm Castle in Mariefred, Sweden, is something of an internet sensation, sparked in part by a 2010 blog post by Ulrika Good. Mental Floss has a round up of the lion’s wild face pasted into scenes from the Wizard of Oz, Narnia, and even the MGM logo. The castle has fully embraced its celebrity, emblazoning its 2016 events program with its malformed mug. On its enthusiastic Facebook page (not run by the lion, as per their info the “lion has currently no access to a computer”), they shared that the Karolinska Institutet is doing a DNA test on the taxidermy, similar to research which was recently focused on the equally alarming taxidermy Eastern mountain lion at the Penn State All-Sports Museum. They may not look much like living lions, but they preserve both historic DNA and visuals of the animal.
Walrus (19th Century)
Horniman Museum & Gardens, London
When a walrus skin arrived from Canada for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, its London taxidermist was not aware that it was from a rather wrinkly marine mammal. So the skin was filled until it was smooth, leaving a rotund, anachronistic animal.
The overstuffed walrus is now on view at London’s Horniman Museum & Gardens, its home since the 1890s when it was acquired by collector Frederick Horniman himself. As the museum explains, “over one hundred years ago, only a few people [in London] had ever seen a live walrus.” But they had seen seals in the Thames Estuary, which likely influenced the creation of the walrus, a sort of monster-sized seal. The walrus recently traveled to the 2013 Curiosity: Art and the Pleasure of Knowing exhibition at Turner Contemporary, its first departure since the museum opened in 1902, and when it was returned proudly took its perch on a giant fake iceberg. The walrus also has a Twitter account where it jokes about its weight and shares fan art.
Grant Museum of Zoology, London
Last year, the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London organized Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals, an exhibition on how animals were portrayed when they weren’t actually seen by the artists. Artwork — including an elongated kangaroo by George Stubbs — was displayed alongside actual animal specimens, including their platypuses (platypi?). As you can see in the photograph above, one was overstuffed and compared to the Horniman Walrus, while the other was quite flat (the clever Grant Museum curators wrote on their label text: “Platypus, Flatypus, Platysausage”).
When 18th-century naturalists, including famed English zoologist George Shaw, first saw the remains of an Australian platypus, they thought it was a hoax, a duck bill sewed onto a beaver body. And the description was even more outlandish, a mammal that laid eggs, and secreted venom. So these initial taxidermy specimens were often inaccurate, yet significant in convincing scientists of these animal aberrations. The original platypus specimen to arrive in England is still at the London Natural History Museum, but not on view as it is so precious.
Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
As the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin explains on their site, the maniacally sad ocelot on the left was preserved in 1818 by someone who “had never seen a live ocelot and had nothing but the skin and a few sketches of the animal, lacking basic anatomical knowledge.” The one on the right, however, was made in 1934 by Gerhard Schröder, who studied the animal while alive. The museum has both in their permanent Masterpieces of Taxidermy exhibition, to show the evolution of natural specimens. It’s interesting that rather than hide this tattered visage away in a dark basement, the museum is showcasing it as part of its history. True, these bad taxidermy creatures are no tribute to the late animal, yet they do show how scientific observation created a better visual knowledge of the Earth’s biology.