The Gentle Art of Political Taxidermy
“Squire” Charles Waterton, 27th Lord of Walton Hall (Yorkshire, England), hated being called an eccentric, but an eccentric he was. He liked to get under the dinner table and bite the legs of his guests like a dog; he walked barefoot in the tropical forests of British Guiana; he climbed the cross of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and put his gloves on its lightning conductor. He knocked out a boa constrictor with a mighty punch; he tried to fly from the top of an outhouse (“navigate the atmosphere,” he called it), only to land on the ground with a “foul shake.”
No one can say that Waterton was not a talented and interesting man. Instead, they said he was eccentric, which, when translated from 19th-century-aristocratic-British-scientist-speak, meant “so crazy we’re pretty sure that he removed his own brain and jammed it in again backwards.”
In the 19th century, when the rich were insane, they were simply eccentric; when the poor were insane, they were crazy. Luckily for Charles Waterton (1782-1865), he inherited a large estate and could insulate himself from legal scrutiny and indulge his whims and interests. Waterton would make a problematic biography, his life filled with front-line environmentalism, exploration, taxidermy, and natural history interests wrapped around a solid steel stake of bizarre personal behaviour. Money was his greatest curative, an elixir of great depth and more understanding than Dr. Freud could ever muster. But ultimately maybe all of this behaviour masked a terminal boredom.
He fashioned weird monstrosities out of hollow animal skins through his own preserving methods (one, the bearded “Nondescript,” made from the skin of a red howler monkey, was probably a caricature of his enemy, Treasury Secretary J.R. Lushington). He bled himself, against doctors’ advice, at least 136 times in his life (“tapping my claret”), and taking from 16 to 20 oz. of blood each time.
But he was not entirely crazy.
Waterton was a traveller, a ‘larger than life’ person and an inventive taxidermist, now regarded as one of Britain’s great eccentrics. His activities, and the aggravation he caused, continue to fascinate, inspire and amuse even 150 years after his death. His famous book Wanderings in South America, published in 1825, described his travels at a time when few people made such journeys. Taxidermy was his passion. He used his skill to fabricate imaginary creatures, forming three-dimensional religious and political cartoons, lampooning issues and people that attracted his ire. His surviving specimens offer a fascinating insight into the skill and ideas of a controversial and idiosyncratic nineteenth century naturalist.
He was an enthusiastic field naturalist and conducted valuable expeditions into the South American wild. On 259 acres of the family estate in England, he started the first wild bird sanctuary in history. His book Wanderings in South America was a popular best-seller though, according to some naturalists, somewhat short on relevant details.
At age 48 he married a 17-year-old, Anne Edmonstone, granddaughter of an Arawak Indian and descendant of Scottish kings and Lady Godiva. He then described himself as a tall man (5 ft. 11 1/2 in.) with muscular legs, graying hair, and a furrowed face. His wife died shortly after giving birth to their son, Edmund. She was only 18. After her death he slept on the floor, with a block of wood for a pillow.
The Squire’s eccentricities were innumerable. When a doctor told him to put his injured foot under running water, he went to Niagara Falls. He was a devotee of the medical practice of bloodletting — considered obsolete quackery even in his day — and wanted so badly to be bitten by a vampire bat that he maintained a habit of sleeping with his big toe uncovered to bait one. (He never succeeded.) He fell in love with his wife at first sight… at her baptism. She was the daughter of an Arawak princess and a Scottish nobleman and colleague, and at the infant’s baptism he fell in love and decided there and then that she was the girl he was going to marry. After that, he planned his expeditions so that they travelled through her small Guianan village, so that he could visit and check up on her. When she was seventeen, he took her away to England and married her. She died the next year, giving birth to their son. After that, and for the rest of his life, he always slept on the floor with a thin blanket and a wooden block for a pillow, out of equal parts grief and guilt. He kept his propensity for walking around his grounds barefoot and climbing both trees and walls without ladders (which he deeply distrusted.)
Besides scientific experimentation, he had two major hobbies. The first was writing essays damning his scientific nemeses, namely John James Audubon and Charles Darwin. In truth, he considered most scientists his enemies, as he was regarded as an unhinged kook by the naturalist community. The most minor disagreements set him ranting and raving; after a manifesto-length screed against Audubon spurred by some negligible quibble over the olfactory faculties of vultures, one prominent scientist declared him “stark, staring mad.” When magazines would no longer publish his invectives, he printed them on pamphlets and sent them to everyone.
His second hobby, and perhaps his greatest legacy, was taxidermy. For most of the history of zoology, taxidermy was an essential skill for any naturalist. It was simply too difficult to capture a live animal and transport it out of the jungle and over the ocean. Alfred Russell Wallace financed his journeys in the South Pacific by shooting and stuffing birds-of-paradise, and Audubon’s paintings were certainly not modelled on live birds. Charles Waterton was a master taxidermist, inventing his own procedure using something he called “sublimate of mercury.” (In fact, he taught his unique procedure to a slave at his British Guiana estate, and that slave, later freed and practicing taxidermy in Scotland, ended up teaching The Squire’s future nemesis Charles Darwin the art.) Greater than his gift for preservation, though, was his creativity. For many of the specimens that The Squire sent home from Guiana had no likeness to any creature, living or previously imagined.
The Squire had a different use for rogue taxidermy: social satire. Of all the things Waterton hated (with Audubon, Darwin, and rats near the top of the list), he reserved a special vintage of ire for the Protestant Church, which was responsible for confiscating most of his Catholic family’s lands under the English Reformation of King Henry VIII.
He once recreated a tableau of famous Protestant figures using grotesquely-posed lizards.
As far as is known, Charles Waterton never met a platypus. But he would have appreciated it. Like the platypus, he seemed to be stitched together from disparate parts: aristocrat, naturalist, buffoon. Though he fancied himself a scientist, Waterton really fell into a long and noble tradition of scientific fabulists.
The guy travelled all over the world, perfected the art of taxidermy, and continuously performed experiments at his estate in England. And he had views — among them was that Hanoverian Protestants had introduced rats into England. He liked neither the protestants nor the rats. He also wasn’t a fan of John James Audubon or Charles Darwin, probably because they used scientific nomenclature, which he also disliked. That, however, folded into his general nuttery. He liked to bark like dogs and talk to bugs (if he had gotten bugs to bark like dogs or made a bug-to-dog dictionary, it would have been amazing), and once tried to “navigate the atmosphere” (in other words, fly) from the top of his outhouse. Why an outhouse? We can’t say, and he never explained.
Waterton wasn’t interested in explaining. He was more interested in crafting tableaux of famous Protestant figures using taxidermied lizards; that alone should have put some people on guard. After a trip to South America, he came back with both drawings and the taxidermied head of something called the Nondescript.
In 1821, he returned to England from an expedition to Guiana, bringing with him hundreds of specimens of South American wildlife, carefully stuffed and preserved. His boat docked in Liverpool, and a customs inspectors named Mr. Lushington boarded. Lushington took one look at the exotic specimens that Waterton had piled up in crates and ordered that a hefty fee should be paid for their importation. Waterton protested. After all, the specimens were of greater scientific value than they were of commercial value. Nevertheless, Lushington would not bend. He insisted that Waterton pay the highest import tax possible.
Three years later Waterton travelled again to Guiana. Upon his return to England he bore with him this time the head of a fabulous specimen which he described as the ‘Nondescript.’ It looked very much like the head of a person, though the exposed face was surrounded by a thick coat of fur. Waterton claimed he had encountered and killed this man-like creature in the jungles of Guiana.
Waterton later wrote a book about his travels through Guiana, titled Wanderings in South America. In this book he included a dramatic description of how he had hunted down the Nondescript. Accompanying this description was an illustration of its head.
Generations of readers enjoyed Waterton’s colourful book, but no one has ever again encountered a Nondescript in the wild. The actual taxidermically preserved specimen that Waterton brought home with him provides the strongest argument in favour of its existence. But naturalists who have examined the specimen have suggested that the face is molded out of the hind quarters of a howler monkey.
Adding a touch of humour to this mystery, is the rumour that the Nondescript bears a startling resemblance to Mr. Lushington, the overzealous customs inspector who had caused him so much grief back in 1821. The suspicion is that Waterton, in his own peculiar way, was literally trying to ‘make a monkey’ out of the tax collector.
The ‘Nondescript’ was a product of Waterton’s marvellous imagination and a demonstration of his innovative taxidermy skills, created by shaving the faces of two red howler monkeys and manipulating their wet skin together to give the hybrid a more human-like appearance.
Not many people found it as funny as Waterton did.
This marvellous little creature, which can be seen today on display at the Wakefield Museum, is an interesting relic of a time where the exploration of the world offered such strange and exotic possibilities to the European imagination. But it also demonstrates the human urge to conjure the bizarre characters from our imaginations and place them in the world to be looked at and to entertain.
Perhaps one of the oddest things about Squire Waterton, and there were many, is that though he enjoyed closely watching animals in the wild, when it came to his stuffed animals he quite liked to combine parts of different species to create his own grotesque imaginary specimens, he created a monkey with horns and a grin which became ‘Martin Luther After His Fall’. Another of his weird creations was a porcupine which is made to appear weighed down by Britain’s national debt (£800 million at the time).
Many think that Waterton was the reason that no one believed that the platypus was real when a taxidermied specimen was sent to England, although that’s not quite true. Waterton was only a teenager developing his crazy when the first platypus got to England. However, he probably delayed the acceptance of the platypus for some time. People were gun shy about frauds, and he expanded what they believed could be done to fake the existence of an animal. Some people even cited him in articles cautioning against accepting the platypus, saying “Surely this animal is a beaver and a duck hot-glued together.”
A range of stories have been handed down about Charles Waterton, few of which are verifiable. The following are at least documented:
- He pretended to be his own butler and then tickled his guests with a coal brush.
- He climbed tall trees to replace nestling heron chicks which had fallen from their nests in a storm.
- He pretended to be a dog and would then bite the legs of his guests as they came into his house.
- Whenever he was ill he cupped himself heavily “to cure anything and everything, from backache to malaria”.
An odd man, then, but Charles Waterton was certainly ahead of his time in setting up his wildfowl reserve – even if his egg collecting and taxidermic exploits would certainly tax the patience of any self-respecting 21st century naturalist.
Waterton was of a Roman Catholic landed gentry family descended from Reiner de Waterton. His ancestry is alleged to include eight saints: Vladimir the Great, Saint Anna of Russia, the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb, Saint Stephen of Hungary, Saint Margaret of Scotland and Saint Mathilde together with Saint Thomas More, Humbert III of Savoy and several European royal families.
He was a descendant of Ailric, King’s Thane to Edward the Confessor, who held Cawthorne and much of South Yorkshire before the Norman Conquest. The heiress Sara le Neville inherited a vast estate from her grandfather Adam FitzSwain (the grandson of Ailric) and it passed to the De Burghes, then to the Watertons in 1435.
The Watertons remained Catholic after the English Reformation and consequently the vast majority of their estates were confiscated. Charles Waterton himself was a devout and ascetic Catholic, and maintained strong links with the Vatican.
“Squire” Waterton was born at Walton Hall, Wakefield, Yorkshire to Thomas Waterton and Anne Bedingfield.
He was educated at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire where his interest in exploration and wildlife were already evident. On one occasion Waterton was caught by the school’s Jesuit Superior scaling the towers at the front of the building; almost at the top, the Superior ordered him to come down the way he had gone up. Waterton records in his autobiography that while he was at the school, “by a mutual understanding, I was considered rat-catcher to the establishment, and also fox-taker, foumart-killer, and cross-bow charger at the time when the young rooks were fledged. … I followed up my calling with great success. The vermin disappeared by the dozen; the books were moderately well-thumbed; and according to my notion of things, all went on perfectly right.”
In 1842, Charles Waterton acquired five Little Owls from Rome and released them in Walton Park, West Yorkshire in 1843. He wanted to introduce the Little Owl as a predator of his garden pests; there was no evidence that these owls bred. Later in 1843, a Little Owl was captured alive in Derby and another was shot in Fletching, East Sussex. William Borrer, a naturalist, concluded that the Derby owl must have ‘wandered’ 80 km from Walton to Derby. He didn’t believe that the owl at Fletching was imported, but he had no proof that it had flown across the Channel.
Waterton kept most of his specimens at his estate of Walton Hall in Yorkshire. In the 1830s, he walled in the estate and established the world’s first nature preserve, stocking it with all sorts of exotic animals, especially birds. Visitors flocked to see his specimens, since he had described the capture of many of them in his book. They especially wanted to see the caiman alligator, which Waterton captured by leaping on its back and riding it to exhaustion. The deed was represented in several paintings, including one by Waterton himself. The wonderful image was not included in his book, for some reason.
He brought large quantities of the poison curare (wourali), still used in modern medicine, into Europe in the belief that it might cure rabies, and he invented the Waterton taxidermy method, a way of preserving animals without stuffing them.
Although known as the Squire of Walton, he could have styled himself the 27th Lord of Walton, had it not been for the Reformation, which took his family’s title away.
“Allow me to inform you that there are no stuffed animals in this house” Waterton declared to a visitor to his museum in 1856.
He went on to demonstrate that his specimens were all hollow by pulling off the head of a preserved polecat and revealing that there was nothing inside.
Waterton’s unusual method relied on the use of the chemical Mercuric Chloride which both prevented insect attack and set the skin hard.
He began the process by scraping away much of the inside of the skin. He then set up the animal roughly into the correct position.
Progressively he returned to the specimen each day, making minor adjustments until he considered that it was sufficiently lifelike.
As far as it is possible to judge, Waterton’s specimens do appear to have been better than others preserved in the nineteenth century.
He certainly believed it to be so. He particularly stressed that you should observe the live bird carefully to ensure the stance or form of the museum specimen was correct. Unfortunately his method was difficult and slow and it has seldom been copied.
He was a devout Catholic who took a firm stand on religious matters – particularly the relationship of the State and the established order.
He lost his young wife soon after the birth of his only son, Edmund; the son eventually sold Walton Hall to family enemies – the Simpsons.
He fought against pollution – for the small village of Walton also harboured a pollution pioneer – one of many such pioneers in the world during and since the Industrial Revolution. This entrepreneur was Edward Thornhill Simpson, a soap manufacturer. Mr Simpson was the unofficial adopted son of an earlier soap manufacturer, William Thornhill Hodgson (who died before the legal battle with Waterton). Hodgson & Simpson acquired the triangle of land that became known as Soap House Yard.
When Hodgson killed himself, Simpson took over the business and it thrived. This manifestation of the Industrial Revolution contributed to pollution in and around the village. It was the cause of a long running dispute between Squire Waterton and the Pilkingtons on the one hand and the Simpson family on the other.
The Squire won the battle, and the Simpsons went off to pollute Wakefield (and to create employment, it must be said), but Waterton lost the war when the Simpsons acquired Walton Hall after his death, following the sale of the estate by his son Edmund.
The Heronry and Stubbs Wood or Piece still exist within the walls of Walton Hall. The Waterton Country Discovery Centre is at the nearby Anglers Country Park at Wintersett.
Although Squire Waterton had brothers, a sister, a son and relatives scattered around the world, he was essentially the last in a long, distinguished line of Watertons to live at Walton Hall. His son, Edmund, lived there for a short while, but, sadly, his continuing financial problems forced him to sell up and move to Lincolnshire. The Waterton family continues to this day in England and Australia, and, no doubt, elsewhere.
Enter ‘Charles Waterton’ as a search item in Google and you get About 362,000 results, evidence of widespread fame and an intriguing life. Few of his contemporaries engaged in such a variety of mischief and adventure. His activities, and the aggravation he caused, continue to fascinate, inspire and amuse even more than150 years after his death.
Waterton’s famous book Wanderings in South America, published in 1825, described his travels at a time when few people made such journeys. It was re-published many times, exciting acclaim, argument and derision in equal volume. It featured a mischievous taxidermy fabrication The Nondescript, a new species of mammal or a tiny human; Waterton wouldn’t say. Instead he confided to his physician “I do enjoy a bit of stuffing” and went on to create a collection of weird creatures as well as ‘normal’ specimens.
Taxidermy was his passion. His book devoted 19 pages to his special methods, one of the first detailed instructions in this art to be published in Britain. It was followed by many essays on the subject, rudely dismissive of contemporary taxidermists. He used his skill to fabricate imaginary creatures, forming three-dimensional religious and political cartoons that lampooned issues and people that attracted his ire. His surviving specimens offer a fascinating insight into the skill and ideas of a controversial and idiosyncratic nineteenth century naturalist.
Waterton is chiefly remembered for his association with curare, and for his writings on natural history and conservation. David Attenborough has described him as “one of the first people anywhere to recognise, not only that the natural world was of great importance, but that it needed protection as humanity made more and more demands on it.”
Waterton was an early opponent of pollution. He fought a long-running court case against the owners of a soap works that had been set up near his estate in 1839, and sent out poisonous chemicals that severely damaged the trees in the park and polluted the lake. He was eventually successful in having the soap works moved.
Waterton died after fracturing his ribs and injuring his liver in a fall on his estate. His coffin was taken from the hall by barge to his chosen resting place, near the spot where the accident happened, in a funeral cortege led by the Bishop of Beverley, and followed at the lakeside by many local people. The grave was between two oak trees, which have since disappeared.
Charles Waterton – a Squire and a Gentleman, but not a ‘Sir’.
The English word ‘squire’ is a shortened version of the word ‘Esquire’. It comes from the Old French ‘escuier’ (modern French écuyer), itself derived from the Late Latin scutarius (“shield bearer”), in medieval or Old English a scutifer. The Classical Latin equivalent was armiger, “arms bearer”. The term has evolved in its uses, referring in the Middle Ages to a trainee knight; after that to the leader of an English village, often a justice of the peace (JP) or a Member of Parliament (MP).
In English village life from the late 17th century until the early 20th century, there was often one principal family of gentry, owning much of the land and living in the largest house, sometimes the manor house or an important grange. The head of this family was often called “the squire”.
Charles Waterton was one such “squire”, regarded with affection and respect by the locals of Walton and Wakefield. He was not a ‘Sir’, as he had not been knighted by the monarch. However, he was, of course, a member of the gentry and a significant landowner; he also lived in the biggest house in Walton.
Read an extract of autobiographical notes by Charles Waterton.