This month I’ve chosen an object that I would love to take home and have in my house. These taxidermy birds are in the Billiard Room alcove and belonged to the Beale family.
They are brightly coloured, tropical quetzals from South America and their name means ‘large, brilliant tail feather’ in the Aztec language Nahuatl. They’re admired so much in Guatemala that the currency is even named after them.
The Beales’ glass dome of quetzals has a label so we know it was made by Henry Ward, when he had a shop on Oxford Street at 2 Vere Street. He only used this address between 1857 and 1878, so it must have been made long before the Beales moved to Standen. Henry Ward trained one of the most famous taxidermists in the world, his son, Roland Ward. He specialised in big game and had a shop called ‘The Jungle’ in London with many famous clients, including Winston Churchill, Walter Rothschild and Edward VII. You can see some of his most famous work at the Powell Cotton Museum at Quex Park in Kent.
Taxidermy was very fashionable in the Victorian era for remembering beloved pets and displaying hunting trophies as well as showing off. Rich travellers and explorers also brought back exotic species that they had stuffed to teach people about other parts of the world in the days before photography and holidays abroad were common. It was very difficult to preserve specimens though as fur and feathers are a favourite meal of insect pests, so the art lost its popularity. People also began to consider the ethics of killing wild animals for decoration. Nowadays artists like Polly Morgan are using taxidermy for modern art installations and there is a trend not to use animals that have been killed for the purpose of stuffing. I even have a few small pieces myself. Let me introduce you to one of them, above is Winston the mouse, who was originally destined to be snake food!