Monday, October 2, 2006

Abraham De Bartlett (Victorian Taxidermy)

Abraham De Bartlett (Victorian Taxidermy)
Abraham Dee Bartlett born 27th October 1812 was one of the most prolific and important taxidermists of his time. He considered himself a Naturalist, being that from a very early age evinced a great delight in all matters connected with Natural History and became an expert on the welfare and behaviour of animals after years of observation. In the early days of his career scientific men as well as collectors of rare birds, and especially of rare bird's eggs, made his house a resort, and the reputation of his extraordinary skill in the art of taxidermy became so widely spread that he was obliged to remove his business into larger premises about the latter part of the year 1846, a large house in Great College Street, Camden Town. He worked with or for Dr. J. E. Gray, Mr. G. Gray, Dr. Mantell, Prof. Owen, the Dean of Westminster, the Bishop of Oxford, Sir Charles Lyell, Prof. Huxley, F. Fuller, Yarrell, Ogilby, Gould, Blyth, and Sir Joseph Paxton and he corresponded regularly with Charles Darwin giving information on the habits, anatomy and breeding of animals and received a signed copy of 'Origin of Species' when first published. As someone who included the painter J M W Turner as a family friend, Bartlett was a son of a hairdresser in Covent Garden, one of 9 children and completely self taught saying:

"After all, teaching by the eye is beyond all doubt necessary, for however much we learn by books or words, it is unequal to that which we witness as a means to acquire knowledge."

In the Great Exhibition of 1851 he was awarded the first prize for specimens of taxidermy which included, Eagle under glass shade, diver under glass shade (the property of her Majesty the Queen), snowy owl, Mandarin duck, Japanese teal, pair of Impeyan pheasants, sleeping ourang-utang, sun bittern, musk deer, cockatoo, foxes; carved giraffe; two bronze medals from the Zoological Society; dog and deer; crowned pigeons; leopard and wolf and prize medal for a model of the Dodo. This is the report of the juries: 'The number of British exhibitors is thirteen. Of these the following deserve especial notice. A. D. Bartlett exhibits an ingenious example of the art in the constructed figure of the Dodo - a bird which was once a native of Mauritius, and found there in considerable numbers at the beginning of the last century, but now, as far as is known, entirely extinct.

The drawings of Savery, preserved in the Belvedere at Vienna, and in the Royal Gallery at Berlin, some remains of a skeleton formerly on the collection already alluded to, of Elias Ashmole, consisting now but of the head and one foot, are the data from which the figure has been compiled. The process is of course very different from that of preserving a real animal, the skeleton and skin of which are entire; an artificial body has to be constructed and then covered, feather by feather, with such plumage as is most in accordance with our knowledge of the bird. This has been very skilfully executed, and the result, by the testimony of Mr. Strickland and of Mr. Gray of the British Museum, "represents with great accuracy the form, dimensions and colour of the Dodo, as far as these characteristics can be ascertained from the evidences which exist," whilst it "does great credit to Mr. Bartlett's skill and to his practical acquaintance with the structure of birds." There are other specimens exhibited by Mr. Bartlett which are perhaps more attractive, inasmuch as they represent nature with a fidelity of which all can judge. The pair of Impeyan Pheasants, entitled "Courtship," and the sleeping Ourang-utang, "Repose," are especially deserving of notice. The fleshy parts of the latter have been very skilfully treated; and the dried and shrivelled appearance which they so often assume is entirely avoided. The skeleton of the Orang-utang has been preserved and also the viscera; the whole forming an example of the manner in which rare specimens should be dealt with in order to secure accurate information to the naturalist, and to promote the advancement of science. He was honoured with commands from her Majesty the Queen, and H.R.H. the Prince Consort, pieces which are believed to be now at Windsor Castle. He looked after her birds at Windsor Castle when she was away receiving a gold watch for his efforts.

Bartlett was Superintendent of the natural history department at Crystal Palace 1852-9. He then became Superintendent of the London Zoological Gardens for nearly 50 years 1859-97 and was responsible for introducing the idea that animals should be kept in habitats and fed food as closely related to their natural environment in the wild and having both an indoor and outside space. He was also responsible for replacing wooden individual cages with brick buildings designated to separate species, like the aquarium and reptile house and opening the gardens to the public. This concession to the public undoubtedly brought about the popularity of the collection and its advancement to its present condition. He purchased many animals on behalf of the Zoological Society until London Zoo had developed a collection to rival any other, naming one baby African elephant Jumbo from the phrase 'Mumbo Jumbo' unaware that this animal would grow into the biggest elephant the world had ever seen and who's name is now synonymous with being large. He gave manly lectures at the London Zoological Society, was widely published in 'Land and Water' and others, had 2 books of his memoir's published after his death. Bartlett had 7 children, Clarence was deputy Superintendent and his other son Edward was Curator of Maidstone Museum in Kent from 1874-90 and Curator of Sarawak Museum in Borneo, 1895-7. Bartlett died 7th May 1897 and is buried in the family grave in Highgate cemetery, being only one of 2 humans to die in the zoo, the other being a member of the public who passed away on a bench

"The first Gorilla with which I had to do came into my hands whilst I was engaged at the Crystal Palace in 1858. It was sent to the British Museum in a barrel of spirits, and Professor Owen placed it in my possession to preserve and mount for the National Museum; after I had preserved it I, by permission of the trustees of that museum, exhibited it at the Crystal Palace, and delivered various lectures on it and the larger apes. "My Dear Sir, - a Mr. Du Challu is desirous to have his largest Gorilla skin properly stuffed. I know no one better qualified to put him in the way of getting this properly done than yourself. Any information, or help you can render, will oblige, yours truly, Dr. Owen" The long and, apparently, interminable contention that was kept up respecting Mr.Du Challu exploits, called forth much correspondence that was quite useless in determining the truth. Many of the remarks and objections that were brought forward on both sides are totally futile and also inaccurate, and tend to obscure the facts. I will endeavour to explain some of them away, and at the same time make am attempt to throw some light upon the subject, which I admit is involved in great obscurity. I will commence with my first introduction to Mr. Du Challu himself, having been called upon by him to assist him with my advice, through Professor Owen.

At Du Challu's request I went to Mr. Murray's to see the skin unpacked; having done this I conveyed the same to my office for the purpose of making a thorough and careful examination of it, and to report upon it. I invited my pupil and assistant, Mr. F. Wilson, to meet M. Du Challu and me and consult with us upon the matter. At this interview I called M. Du Challu's attention to the face of the animal, which I told him was not in a perfect condition, having lost part of the epidermis. In reply he, Mr. Du Challu, assured me that it was quite perfect, remarking, at the same time, that the epidermis on the face was quite black, and that the face of the skin being black was a proof of its perfectness. I, however, then and there convinced him that the blackness of the face was due to its having been painted black; finding I had detected what had been done, he at once admitted that he did it at the time he exhibited it in New York.

The question that arose in my mind upon making this discovery, was, did Mr. Du Challu kill the Gorilla and skin and preserve it? If so, he must recollect that the epidermis came off; supposing he did forget this, he had to paint the face to represent its natural condition. These facts (to which I had a witness) led me to doubt the truthfulness of Du Challu's statement, and it occurred to me that he was not aware of the state of the skin, and probably had not prepared it himself. The skin was in a wretched condition, and was much decayed, and as my examination was not directed to ascertain by what means this animal had been killed, I took less notice of the wounds than I otherwise should have done. Upon this latter subject I beg to offer a few remarks. The first object of a taxidermist is to render all the damages or wounded parts of a skin as perfect as possible, and this can be done by a skilful operator in such a manner as to render the detection of the damaged parts next to impossible. Had the beast been shot in the back, the bullet hole could have been easily closed while in a fresh condition, but not so easily after the skin was hard and dry.

The letters of correspondence to Darwin are held at Cambridge University and his other letters by the London Zoological Society, both books of memoirs were compiled and edited by his son Edward who said: Since taking up his abode in the Gardens he became a walking Zoological Encyclopaedia. Judging from the mass of correspondence, alone, which has come into my possession, it is evident that, notwithstanding his onerous and responsible duties in looking after the keepers, animals, buildings and gardens, he found time to record his experiences for the benefit of science and for the instruction and amusement of the animal-loving public.

Our side of the family descend from Abraham's son Clarence. All of Clarence's children were born in the Zoo including Daisy who was my Nan's mother. It was the family joke that 'mother was born in a Zoo'. There were some interesting memorabilia passed down including the foot of an elephant made into an umbrella stand, many gifts presented to Bartlett by visitors to the Zoo from the Queen and the Aga Khan to African weapons from the famous Chief Lobengula of Matabeleland and some tiny gloves from the smallest man in the world Tom Thumb. There was also a pair of oil paintings by the family friend Turner which hung above Daisy's fireplace in Kensington. Nanny said during the war they put them under the stairs during the blitz and when the house was bombed the staircase was the only remaining part and the paintings had gone. But the tale does not end there, when I told this to Aunt Mary after Nan had died the truth came out which was that they were so poor the bailiffs came and took the paintings

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'No Mirrors Involved'
Snow Leopards
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