Tiger Head No. 773, Bhopal, 21st April 1932

Tiger Head No. 773, Bhopal, 21st April 1932

I bought this tiger head mount from a dealer in 1985. The trophy bears a label ‘Bhopal, 21st April 1932’. Its quality, style and oversized black wooden shield indicate preservation by the Van Ingen factory in southern India. Their work turns up frequently in museums and British auction sales. The tiger would represent their output in my collection of historical taxidermy. On the back of the shield is painted the number ‘773’. By chance, I discovered that one of the Van Ingen brothers was still alive in 2002 (aged 90) and after a wary exchange of letters he agreed to let me visit. The old factory was still there in Mysore, closed for a decade, but once the largest taxidermy works in the world with 150 employees. The old stores still contained a stock of the special papier-mâché manikins that were used to set up trophy heads like mine. Crucially, the firm’s Order Books had been saved, dating back to 1910. These revealed that the first no. 773 after April 1932 was order no.17, 773. This was a batch of specimens including 25 tiger skins. It turned out that my tiger was not shot by a British officer exploiting Indian wildlife, but (like many other similar items) was prepared for one of the Indian nobility, His Highness The Maharaja Bahendra of Kotah. The animal was shot by him or his guests on a traditional tiger hunt. Seventeen of those tigers were finished and dispatched by October of that year. Three were set up as trophy heads (including mine), the rest were made into a large rug. I don’t know how my tiger reached Britain, but this episode led to four more fascinating visits to India and to my publishing a record of Indian big game taxidermy, a key aspect of Indian social history.1 Subsequently I was allowed to copy the Order Books, 53,000 orders that included handling more than 20,000 tigers and 23,000 leopards in 90 years, a truly unbelievable total if it were not substantiated in this way. Moreover, it is now possible, given the order number, to distinguish tiger and leopard specimens that date from after 1947 and cannot therefore be traded legally due to the provisions of the Convention on Endangered Species (CITES). For a potential seller (and many people have inherited these things and want to dispose of them) the difference represents many thousands of pounds, or a hefty fine.

This tiger head is the tip of a huge iceberg of a story!

 

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.

Morris, Pat and M. J. Morris, ‘Evidence of the former abundance of tigers (Panthera tigris ) and panthers (P. pardus) from the taxidermy Order Books of Van Ingen & Van Ingen, Mysore’, in Archives of Natural History, 36 (2009), pp. 53-62.


 

1 Pat Morris, Van Ingen & Van Ingen. Artists in Taxidermy (Ascot, 2006).

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... 53,000 orders that included handling more than 20,000 tigers and 23,000 leopards in 90 years, a truly unbelievable total ...