I was in fifth or sixth grade when our teachers trucked us all out for what has to be the oddest school trip combo in history: The Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Football Hall of Fame. There I was pale, skinny, bookish, all knees and elbows and just dreading going to the sports portion. Some things don’t change. In fact, I actually just had to look up what sportball hall of fame is in Ohio while writing this because clearly I only have a real memory of the museum. Needless to say, I was in the minority on that trip.
This was the first time I’d been to a natural history museum and I stood there staring at the giant taxidermy dioramas frozen in awe. I had not expected this. I thought this museum would be all geodes and planetariums, which I would have also been fine with, but this…this was magical. I stood there so long it felt like time had stopped. I nearly missed the bus to the Football Hall of Fame and someone had to come find me and drag me out of the building. I loved walking through the dark rooms lit only by the lights in the nature scenes. I loved the painted backdrops behind the animals, I loved the theatre of it. I never wanted to leave. From that day on, I was enthralled.
Taxidermy is a polarizing topic especially, I find, here in California so let’s be very clear on the subject: I love taxidermy but I don’t support killing for sport. Big game hunters make me sick. The taxidermy I collect is all very very old (mostly Victorian) and somehow that makes me feel better about it. I have no interest in actually creating taxidermy myself and I nearly faint when someone jokes about me stuffing one of my cats after they die, so my relationship with taxidermy is still a bit complicated.
For me, it’s about understanding the Victorian’s relationship with the natural world and their obsessive desire to preserve everything. They were fixated with death and mourning and I suppose I was/am too. I’m also obsessed with human mummies and funeral photos so I don’t really discriminate across species at least.
This past weekend I bid on a number of pieces at auction that were all Victorian pets. This was an exhaustive and fascinating collection of taxidermy, mourning jewelry, automatons, and antique erotica held by Treadway Toomey Auctions in Chicago. The auction was held to raise money to fund grants for contemporary artists. Here’s an excerpt from the program:
Treadway Toomey Auctions is pleased to offer items from the Estate of Candice B. Groot. This important single-owner collection spans much of the late 19th through 21st centuries and includes fine timepieces, erotica, fine taxidermy, automata and decorative arts in addition to exceptional modern and contemporary art and ceramics. The collection will be offered for sale in four auctions throughout 2016 with proceeds benefiting the Virginia A. Groot Foundation, a nonprofit arts organization.
Candice Groot was an artist, teacher, philanthropist and passionate collector. She established the Virginia A. Groot Foundation in 1988, named in honor of her mother. The Foundation awards annual international grants to contemporary artists who work in three dimensions to help allow for the development of their work.
But I digress, this collection floored me. Whoever had these mounts made back in the day clearly loved their pets and wanted them with them always and Candice A. Groot recognized their genius and procured them. Here are a few of them from the auction house website:
Oh kitty, you are special.
And my personal favorite:
The fact that they’re pets is what drew me to them. These weren’t wild animals killed for sport, they were members of the family put on actual pedestals, propped up on velvet pillows or worn on the heads of their humans.
Probably the most famous of all Victorian taxidermists is Walter Potter. Well known for his anthropomorphic dioramas of animals, he is a classic example of the Victorian “whimsy” that quickly fell out of fashion in the twentieth century. Potter displayed his creations in his museum and they were well loved at first, then lost their appeal altogether for a time. His collection was sold off in 2003 piece by piece. Two of his pieces, quite large in size, were auctioned off this past Saturday and fetched the price of $100,000 and $140,000 so someone still loves them (besides me, of course).
The auction also contained a fair amount of mourning jewelry of a similar type. All the pieces had paintings of the dearly departed’s eye in the center of them. They’re beautiful and haunting.
I encourage you to have a look at some of the odd erotica pieces too, they’re quite something. There are canes with secret compartments, naughty pocket watches, and ladies compacts with secret paintings inside to name just a few of the choice items. The Victorians weren’t all high collared dresses and courting couches, believe me.
Lastly, I leave you with a few of the antique automatons that I coveted:
And who doesn’t love a smoking monkey?
Thank you, Candice B. Groot for having such exquisite taste and for setting up such a noble fund for artists. I just wish I’d won the pooch on the velvet pillow.