Thorpe Wagtail Case, ca 1920s

Thorpe Wagtail Case, ca 1920s

The purpose of my extensive collection of antique taxidermy is to illustrate the many diverse facets of this subject. Everything has a tale to tell, often with interesting details of its acquisition. It is hard to select a ‘favourite’, but this case of wagtails has a strong claim. It was probably set up by Charles Thorpe of Croyden (in the 1920s?), and has a tinted backdrop shading from pale blue to yellow, characteristic of cases signed by this taxidermist. Small delicate birds are a technical challenge and these are done well. The groundwork and rocks are skilfully made from newspaper. There is a pool of simulated water with gravel visible below the surface and shining ‘wet’ mud at its margin. It is a technically very competent piece of work. However, it also reflects the changing intellectual environment within which taxidermists operated in the early twentieth century. Until then, biology had focussed on classification, variation within species and evolutionary change from one to another. This required taxidermy to adopt standard poses to facilitate essentially comparative studies. The new century brought a fresh approach, with studies of behaviour and ecology becoming increasingly significant. Thus, this case not only shows what grey wagtails look like, but also where they live (beside clear water) and what they do (seek food at the water’s edge and preen their feathers when at rest). It represents a ‘habitat group’, a style of taxidermy presentation that became both fashionable and controversial in museum circles.

It used to be in the office of an antique dealer near Hampton Court. After leaving school early on Fridays, I sometimes cycled that way home to haggle with the proprietor over his selection of odd birds’ skins and eggs. He had a terrible stutter, so negotiations were slow, but gradually I exhausted his stock of small things as their prices fell below a shilling and I could afford to buy them. He had a fine hoopoe in a glass dome, and with birthday money I finally got that for ten shillings, the most I paid for any taxidermy for more than 20 years. But the wagtails were emphatically ‘nnnot for sale’. Pestered beyond tolerance Mr. LeFevre finally set a price- £2-10/-. This was absurd. It represented months of my pocket money, which also had to buy many necessary things not just sweets or stuffed birds. Then my Granny died, leaving a large selection of old porcelain ornaments that nobody in our family wanted. Sometime about 1960 the deal was done, and LeFevre took them in exchange for the case of wagtails. I may have unwittingly parted with some priceless stuff, but who cares?

 

Further reading:

Morris, Pat, A History of Taxidermy. Art, Science, and Bad Taste, Ascot, 2010.

Ibid., Walter Potter and his Museum of Curious Taxidermy, Ascot, 2008.

Ibid., Van Ingen & Van Ingen. Artists in Taxidermy, Ascot, 2006.

Ibid., Edward Gerrard & Sons. A Taxidermy Memoir, Ascot, 2004.

Ibid., Rowland Ward: Taxidermist to the World, Ascot, 2003.

 

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Small delicate birds are a technical challenge and these are done well.