Monday, 6 September 2010

standing on the shoulders of giant elephants

I'll say what I like about Sri Lankan taxidermists, and one of those things is that their art form, if it is that, and it might be, reached its publicly highest pitch with Clarence - known as Carl - Akeley, after whom the American Museum of Natural History named its Hall of African Mammals.

Akeley was a perfectionist obsessive who spent fifteen years planning, designing and developing the techniques to bring off a set of huge dioramas, featuring lots of elephants and his very favourite gorillas (The Old Man of Mikeno, the Lone Male of Karisimbi, Clarence, various others; most of which he shot for the purpose). One of the key things about taxidermy, as you know, is that it is about the recreation of individual animals. Trophy stuffing preserves generalities.


So, every elephant, for instance, was sculpted as an individual. Tanning the skins, turning them from 2.5 inch thick hides into supple inch-thick leather (without losing, it was said, a wrinkle, wart or tick hole) took two weeks of daily work. These days, for fairly obvious reasons, the World Taxidermy Champions frequently focus on regularish sort of animals done brilliantly rather than crazy animals done mightily. Fair enough.

Akeley sculpted, obviously. Proof of the pudding is in the sculpture of the lion hunters on the right. And lots besides. I am reading a book about taxidermy, by the way. I got it at one of the bookswaps and it's cracking.

Bonus fact: Akeley invented shotcrete, a kind of concrete you could fire from a hose. He found this useful during WW1 when he served as a major in the Corps of Engineers. The first cement gun was used to fortify the Panama Canal. Akeley never wore uniform, because if he did he wouldn't be able to call his colonel a 'damn fool'.

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