Vintage Taxidermy

Polly_stuffed_parrotAs I write this, a parrot has just come up for sale. An African grey parrot, to be precise, in a peach-hued box accented with a few feathery grasses. Perched on a sturdy bit of wood, he seems quite chipper, ogling the world with a sharp yellow eye, as if about bob up and down as excited parrots do. But of course he won’t. Polly died in the winter of 1947. Dead but still loved. His inscription reads, “"Our Dearest Polly, we who loved you dear will never forget you. January 26th, 1946."

But poor Polly, half a century later he was forgotten. Beside the trade label on his box making known that Polly was stuffed by the famous English taxidermy firm of Edward Gerrard & Sons, Polly is a parrot of unknown origins. Dead, forgotten, and for sale by Top Hat Taxidermy for £247.99 plus postage and handling. Several Victorian spaniels are for sale as well including a brown and white puppy, if that is more to your liking.

For vintage taxidermy enthusiasts check out Top Hat Taxidermy, an online mail-order company specialising in Victorian taxidermy although they have lots of new creatures as well. On the vintage front, besides the standard fare of British birds and badgers, you'll find a wonderful selection masks (a traditional name for small animal heads on plaques) pets, glass domes and cases, and trout and bream in dome fronted cases.


Flaubert's Parrot

When Gustave Flaubert was writing Un simple coeur, he rented – if that’s the right word – a stuffed parrot from the Museum of Rouen. The bird was bright green with a blue head and scarlet wings, and it sat on Flaubert’s desk for three weeks as a muse for a story which describes the apotheosis of a stuffed parrot named Loulou.

Flaubert’s tale recounts the series of deaths and departures that compose the life of a simple housemaid named Félicité. Her father dies, then her mother, and the sisters are dispersed. She is beaten by a farmer who let her keep cows in his fields. Her fiancé is harsh and deceitful and leaves her heartbroken. She begins life again as a servant for Madame Aubain and her two children - Virginia and Paul - who she serves for half a century with the swollen devotion of a medieval nun. But one by one they all leave her – Madame Aubain, the children, her long-lost nephew, an old man living in a pigsty with a cancer as big as a pumpkin on his arm - they all forget her or die, even Loulou her beloved parrot. But Loulou, Félicité has stuffed. Jauntily posed with one foot in the air and a gilded nut in his beak, Loulou swells into more than just a stuffed shell of the bird that Flauberts-parrot.jpgused to squawk out “Pretty boy! Your servant, sir! I salute you, Marie!" At worse, Loulou is transfigured into the king of trinkets, at best, into the holy spirit: either way, not bad for a stuffed parrot.

Over the years Félicité transforms her little attic room into junkstore chapel cluttered with the relics of all her departed loves and a jumble of religious icons. Rosaries, holy virgins, a holy water basin made out of a coconut, and a picture of the Holy Ghost with flaming red wings; Virginia’s little plush hat, a picture of the Comte D’Artois, artificial flowers, and a box of shell from her nephew. Loulou, of course, was the central figure: part devotional object, part wistful souvenir of better days. Over time, she lost track of the difference. In fact, she suspected that the Holy Ghost – The Giver of Tongues - had really been a parrot not a dove as it is conventionally represented. Logic is certainly on her side,” Julian Barnes charitably glosses in his superb novel Flaubert’s Parrot: “parrots and Holy Ghosts can speak, whereas doves cannot.” And when no one was left in her life but Loulou, Félicité took to saying her daily prayers kneeling in front of Loulou. When the glint of the sun fell through the window on Loulou’s glass eye, it seemed to ignite a spark that sent the simple woman into ecstatic reveries. At this point, Loulou was really no more than a mass of feathers with a broken wing and batting sprouting from holes eaten by worms. But none of that mattered to Félicité: she was now deaf, blind, and all but mute. As she finally passed from this world to the next, Félicité thought she saw a gigantic parrot hovering in the opening heavens above her.

Unlike Felicite, however, Flaubert was hardly overwhelmed with the sanctified aura of the bird on his desk. After three weeks, the author had finally had enough of the parrot. Something about it irritated him - perhaps the impertinent cock of its head, perhaps the supercilious twinkle in its glass eye - and just like that the affair was over.


Parrot Companions

Image taken from
The oldest surviving example of bird taxidermy is believed to be Frances Stuarts' (the Duchess of Richmond and Lennox) African Grey Parrot, which can still be seen in Westminster Abbey, London. The bird died soon after its mistress in 1702 and X-rays show that it was preserved in a rather crude manner, which makes the parrot's survival all these years even more remarkable.  The parrot was never fully skinned and the skull, tongue and trachea are still intact along with the entire skeleton. Few specimens have last from the eighteenth century (before arsenic was discovered as a means of deterring insect attack), and the parrot's good condition is probably due to the other, slightly more precious objects on display in the Abbey, which ensured the carekeepers maintained an austere atmosphere.  Insects probably never dared to enter.

Since ancient times, parrots (psittacidae) were the frequent exotic companions of those who could afford to buy them, [read more from the Guardian +] and Frances was not alone in her affection for her cherished pet parrot. The Roman poet Ovid wrote an elegy for his mistress's parrot, asking the other birds to mourn its death. 

An interesting side note: perhaps parrots and mistresses go together. Frances Lennox was King Charles II's mistress. The wax effigy of the King was paired not with his wife, Queen Catherine, but with Frances, the King's unrequited love. In a codicil to her will, Frances provided for an "Effigie as well done in wax as can be," dressed in the gown she had recently worn at the coronation of Queen Anne. Her parrot was posed alongside.