Victorian Taxidermist, Explorer, and Great British Eccentric Charles Waterton: A Live, Illustrated Zoom Talk by Taxidermy Collector and Historian Dr Pat Morris
Enter ‘Charles Waterton’ as a search item in Google and you get 400,000 hits, evidence of widespread fame and an intriguing life. He was a traveller, ‘larger than life’ person and an inventive taxidermist, now regarded as one of Britain’s great eccentrics. Few of his contemporaries engaged in such a variety of mischief and adventure. His activities, and the aggravation he caused, continue to fascinate, inspire and amuse even 150 years after his death. His famous book Wanderings in South America, published in 1825, described his travels at a time when few people made such journeys. It was re-published many times, exciting acclaim, argument and derision in equal volume. It featured a mischievous taxidermy fabrication (The Nondescript), a new species of mammal or a tiny human; Waterton wouldn’t say. Instead, he confided to his physician “I do enjoy a bit of stuffing” and went on to create a collection of weird fabricated creatures as well as ‘normal’ specimens.
Taxidermy was his passion. His book devoted 19 pages to his special methods, one of the first detailed instructions in this art to be published in Britain. It was followed by many essays on the subject, rudely dismissive of contemporary taxidermists. He used his skill to create imaginary creatures, forming three-dimensional religious and political cartoons that lampooned issues and people that attracted his ire. His surviving specimens offer a fascinating insight into the skill and ideas of a controversial and idiosyncratic nineteenth-century naturalist. Waterton used his own method of taxidermy that included no stuffing (!). It was so time-consuming that nobody copied him and nobody understood how his ‘creations’ were made. This talk will demonstrate his methods and reveal the mysteries of how he achieved what he did.
Tonight’s talk, by zoologist and taxidermy historian Dr Pat Morris, will tell the story of this fascinating man, his legendary exploits, and his idiosyncratic taxidermy.
Dr Pat Morris was Senior Lecturer in Zoology at Royal Holloway (University of London) and has a longstanding interest in the history of taxidermy. He has published several papers and books on the subject, including A History of Taxidermy: Art, Science and Bad Taste (2010), along with more than 50 other scientific papers and 20 natural history books. He is the first Honorary Life Member of the Guild of Taxidermists and a member of Defra’s panel of experts appointed to assess authenticity of antique taxidermy items.
Widely known for his conservation-related research on mammals, especially hedgehogs and dormice, he is a former Chairman of the Mammal Society, was a Council Member of the National Trust and former Chairman of its Nature Conservation Advisory Panel. He was appointed MBE by the Queen in 2015 ‘for services to the natural and historic environment’, the latter being a reference to his contributions to the history and management of taxidermy collections. He has visited several hundred zoos and natural history museums, in more than 20 countries and has a devoted wife, married since 1978.
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