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Wednesday
Dec262007

Hermann Ploucquet & the Great Exhibition

A declaration of love between two weasels, a dormouse duel, hedgehogs ice-skating, and six kitten serenading a piglet underneath her window were just a few of the miniature dramas that charmed Victorian audiences at the Great Exhibition of renecke.jpg
Ploucquet's series of Reinecke's devious adventures.
1851 in London. The amusing scenes were created by Hermann Ploucquet, taxidermist at the Royal Museum in Stuttgart, and displayed in the Württemberg Court.

Plouquet’s comical creatures were one of the highlights of the Exhibition. Newspapers regularly ran delighted descriptions of the amusing scenes. “We have on more than one occasion – and we have not by any means been singular in that respect,” The Morning Chronicle writes on August 12th, 1851, “directed the attention of visitors to the Exhibition to the consummately clever collection of stuffed animals, or miniature representations of animals, engaged in performing human occupations, and seemingly influenced by human motives, hopes, and fears.”  The stall at which Ploucquet’s creations were exhibited was “one of the most crowded points of the Exhibition” perpetually surrounded by a “merry crowd.”

Truly, Ploucquet had delighted English audiences with his novel creations: “nothing can be more genuine than the admiration, or more hearty than the laughter, with which the civilised animals are greeted. Ploucquet’s most popular were a series of six tableaux illustrating the German fable Reinecke the Fox based on Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s etchings of Goethe’s version of the medieval trickster tale.  Reminiscing several decades after the Exhibition, J. A. Froude noted that the appeal of Ploucquet’s vision of Reineke was sufficient to incite a craze for the neglected fable: "Everybody began to talk of Reineke."

stoatdentist.jpg
An etching from David Bogue's catalogue of Ploucquet's works.
Ploucquet’s technical facility and imaginative talents achieved such celebrity that a book of engravings with short accompanying text by David Brogue was published before the Exhibition had ended so that “one of the cleverest and most popular displays in the GREAT EXHIBTION … may be long perpetuated.” Indeed, as the preface claims “everyone from Her Majesty the Queen down to the charity boys, hasten to see the Stuffed Animals.” At a price of 3s 6d or 6s with the plates coloured, the publication was equally as admired as the original creations: “To whom, old or young, will it not be welcome?” The Examiner exclaimed over the clever etchings.  “Who has not, young or old, seen, laughed at, revisted, and brought away pleasant recollections of the Stuffed Animals from Zollverein."

The theatricality of Plocquet's works, their phenomenal popularity, and hearty amusement they inspired might suggest that Plouquet was more showman than serious naturalist and his creatures best categorized as popular entertainment.  Yet, as delightful as the anthropomorphic tableaux were, they were not mere fancy to English audiences.  In no way were the theatrical poses deemed to mask the creatures’ innate characteristics.  In fact, it was quite precisely Ploucquet’s achievement of this double identity – human behaviours and animal expressions – that earned him such praise: “[t]he animals borrow exaggerated expression, without losing their brute looks; and the rationale of the irresistible risibility which they excite, is the wondrous union of brute face with human expression." The sly fox was still a fox; the placid rabbit with his “honest hairy face ... is also a rabbit still." In short, the creatures had been put into the most comical conditions of human life “without destroying their own natural peculiarities."

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