Curiosity: Tiger head and forepaws in glass case
Date: 1903 (shot)
Origin: Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India
Maker: J. Hutchings, Naturalist and Gunmaker, Aberystwyth
Measurements (case): 71x41x79cm
These days, the idea of shooting and stuffing an animal, let alone a rare species such as the tiger, appears monstrous to most people. Nevertheless, back in the days when this poor thing was shot, big game hunting was still very much acceptable and a favourite pastime for sportsmen travelling in Africa or on the Indian subcontinent. As London taxidermist and publisher Rowland Ward (1847-1912) wrote in 1880 in his Sportsman’s Handbook:“….the true sportsman, who seeks rather an exercise of his skill and courage than the silly vanity of copious butchery.” Rowland advises on hunting on all continents, including what animals are a to be found in which area and the best time to shoot them. The season for shooting tigers in India was apparently March and April. The book also gives detailed instructions about how best to keep the carcass safe during transportation and how to eventually stuff and mount it correctly. It might be quite disconcerting for us to read that “a tiger can be perfectly skinned by a skilful hand with a shoemaker’s knife, price threepence-halfpenny.” as Rowland explains, but a seasoned huntsman at that time would not have batted an eyelid at such remark.
Although taxidermy was quite a popular hobby during Victorian and Edwardian times, it was a also a respected and recognized profession, hence those who perhaps did not think themselves skilled enough to perform the stuffing themselves, had of course the choice to hand their preserved trophies over to experienced taxidermists such as the Hutchingses. It was also known that animals’ bodies could spread diseases such as anthrax, and people might have wanted to avoid the risk of being infected. The use of arsenic soap to protect the skins from pests would have also deterred some from doing the task themselves.
James Hutchings (1842/3-1929) started his taxidermy workshop in Aberystwyth in the 1860s. It is unknown where he learnt his craft initially, but it is believed that it started out as a hobby. His children were all involved in the business; James Frederick “Fred” (1870-1959), the oldest son, was apprenticed with Edward Francis Spicer (1850-1927), a taxidermist in Birmingham, and became the main taxidermist in his father’s workshop in due course. It seems that Hutchings’s daughters, Rosa and Kate “Poppy”, painted the distinctive backgrounds with shades of blue combined with hues of yellow or pink. Background scenes were very rare and probably only created if specifically requested. The trade label on the inside of the case (see photo) states ‘Naturalist & Gun Maker’. ‘Naturalist’ is a rarely used word for a taxidermist; otherwise, a naturalist was an expert or simply a person interested in the study of nature. The expression can be applied to James Hutchings in both senses as he was very knowledgeable about local wildlife and was friends with Professor J. H. Walter ((1862-1942), professor of Botany at Aberystwyth University (1891-1903); they were often seen out walking and shooting together. ‘Gun Maker’ is slightly misleading, as he is not known to have manufactured weapons; instead, he sold guns and paraphernalia and angling equipment.
The case itself is made in the typical Hutchings’ style: The front and sides are made of glass panels; the background is painted on paper in light blue at the top transmuting to pink towards the base; the woodwork is painted in glossy black all over with gilded strips decorating the front and side panels; the feet are square with rounded-off fronts, the case edges are rounded as well. The inside is filled with a variety of dried grasses and seeds and a ‘rock’-structure out of which the tiger seems to appear. The ‘stone’ was probably made from varnished and painted peat. The canvas, which is visible at the back of the case, supports the sealing that keeps the inside safe from pests. Camphor might also be been hidden inside for the same reason.
It is very likely that the head was taken from a tiger rug as the fur is very evenly bleached, which would have been caused by exposure to the sun, and the head is slightly flatter than it should be. Hutchings probably tried to remodel the head and create a shape closer to nature. Originally, the skull would have been boiled to take the flesh off; it would then be covered with the skin again, the tiger’s features recreated and let to dry. The head and forepaws in the case have been posed as if the animal was about to attack; it’s snarling, the claws are unsheathed and the ears are flattened against the skull. The teeth would normally be left on the jawbones, but in this case were probably extracted, cleaned and then put back into the sockets. Tongue and gums were usually modelled from papier-mâché and painted in naturalistic colours. However, here it could be Plasticine, which had just been invented by William Harbutt (1844-1921) and started to be commercially produced around the turn of the century. Unlike other taxidermists’ exemplars, Huntchings’ have furrowed tongues, which gives them a more realistic appearance. The eyes are usually glass and are meant to resemble the real thing as closely as possible. The nose was enhanced with paint as skin pigments lose their colour after death.
The origin of the tiger is obscure; skins of exotic animals were often bought from professional dealers; it might also be possible that one of Hutchings’ illustrious customers such as are named below shot them on a trip to India. It’s a mystery that still needs to be solved, as there appears to be no record at all as to when and from whom the museum received the case. At this very moment, all I can say is “watch this space” as I will certainly update this blog if any information should come to light in the future.
Hutchings’ business was well known far beyond the borders of Ceredigion. The family had customers from across Britain, Lord Walter Rothschild, the Earls of Lisburne and Powis among them; orders would also come in from far-off places such as New York, Sydney or India. They produced at least 500 cases between the establishment of their business in the 1860s and its closure in 1942. Most animals processed were local breeds such as owls, seabirds, foxes or polecats; exotic specimens such as our tiger were rather unusual. I like to imagine that it must have been a welcome change and challenge for the family workshop.
(Click on images to enlarge them.)
Special thanks this time go to Tom, one of our Fine Art students, who used to be a professional taxidermist and explained some of the technical details to me.
By pure coincidence, I came across this article by the Wellcome Collection, London, in which a contemporary taxidermist talks about her work. You might be curious about what today’s taxidermists think about their profession: https://next.wellcomecollection.org/articles/ethical-taxidermy
On a lighter note, Tom also remembered this song whilst we were discussing the finer details of taxidermy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNmL1L3dF6g
Freeman, Michael, Morris, Patt. Hutchings the Aberystwyth taxidermists 1860-1942. Ascot: MPM P, 2007. Print.
Henning, Michelle. “Anthropomorphic Taxidermy and the Death of Nature: The curios Art of Hermann Plouquet, Walter Potter, and Charles Waterton.” Victorian Literature and Culture 35.2 (2007): 663-78. JSTOR. Web.
Hussain, Shafqat. “Sports-hunting, Fairness and Colonial Identity: Collaboration and Subversion in the Northwestern Frontier Region of the British Indian Empire.” Conservation and Society 8.2 (2010): 112-26. Web.
Sramek, Joseph. “”Face Him Like a Briton”: Tiger Hunting, Imperialism, and British Masculinity in Colonial India, 1800-1875.” Victorian Studies 48.4 (2006): 659-80. JSTOR. Web.
Ward, Rowland. The sportsman’s handbook to practical collecting, preserving, and artistic setting-up of trophies and specimens: to which is added a synoptical guide to the hunting grounds of the world. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co, 1880. Print.