On a Taxidermist

Taxidermy is one of those skills that thrives today in the American south and west and not much of anywhere that hunting is not a popular pastime. That has not always been the case; 200 years ago, taxidermy shops were fairly common businesses in most large towns. Everyone from schools to scientists to collectors wanted stuffed animals on display or to study. The good ones were and are combinations of skilled artists, sculptors, and naturalists according to the Guild of Taxidermists. The word comes from two Greek words for “arrangement” and “skin.”

One of the most famous taxidermists of the 19th Century was a man named John Edmonstone. John practiced his art/skill in Edinburgh, Scotland, not too far from the University Medical College. Edinburgh must have been quite different than where John was from. You see, John was born a slave in British Guyana, in South America. His last name was the name of the man who owned John. One time, a naturalist named Charles Waterton came to the plantation where John lived. He asked the young John to assist him in collecting and then preserving specimens from the jungles surrounding the plantation. Waterton found that John had a knack for the trade, and he suggested to the plantation owner that John be allowed to pursue taxidermy as part of his work.

In 1817, John’s owner moved to Scotland, and John came along. There, he was granted his freedom and began to pursue taxidermy as a profession. Again it must have seemed a long way from Guyana to Scotland for the young man. Soon, he had a thriving business and quickly gained a reputation for his skill. His first shop was in Glasgow, and he made good money. Eventually, John was able to open a store on the main shopping street of the wealthier city of Edinburgh, Princes Street, in New Town.

In addition to selling posed specimens (natural poses) and trophies (heads on walls), John supplemented his income by taking on students who wanted to learn this potentially lucrative trade. He taught many students over the years. One of them, a 15 year old student at the university, wrote home telling his family how wonderful his taxidermy teacher was to him. Even though the price for the lessons was fairly steep (a guinea for an hour’s class), the young man said that John, “gained his (good) livelihood by stuffing birds, at which he is excellent.”

Over the course of his career, John Edmonstone worked for the museum of the university, and several examples of his work are still available to be seen today. His knowledge of tropical birds and animals made him unique in the trade in Scotland. In 2003, he was listed as one of the 100 Great Black Britons in a BBC poll.

And that 15 year old student of John’s who spoke so highly of his skill? He put his lessons in taxidermy to good use in expeditions to South America and beyond. Some say that his learning from John insured him a place on one of his first expeditions to the Galapagos Islands.

You know that young taxidermist as Charles Darwin.

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