Furry necks craned upwards to their porcine audience, the feline choir held a selection of miniature instruments, though Walter doubted they really knew how to play. Meanwhile, the furious swine, leaning precariously out of a first storey window, squealed at the crooning kittens in the street. Walter imagined they were poorly rehearsed and singing out of tune, making the situation all the more amusing.
This was Walter’s favourite engraving in his most treasured of books, The Comical Creatures of Wüttemberg - an illustrated accompaniment to the popular display of stuffed animals by Hermann Ploucquet, the German taxidermist, at the Great Exhibition in London. Walter learned all about the wonders on show at the Crystal Palace – the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the miraculous voting machine – from reading the York Herald, but nothing had captured his attention like the enchanting idea of animals dressed up as people. He often found himself daydreaming about amusing scenarios: a ferret wearing his schoolmaster’s hat; a rabbit in uniform delivering letters, bounding up to their front door on Stonegate. He longed to travel down South by train to see the display – a desire he regularly voiced to his parents after school - but such an idea, his father told him, was out of the question.
Nonetheless, it was Walter’s inexorable fascination with these taxidermy tableaux which led to the purchase of his cherished book. Published due to popular demand while the crowds were still flocking to the Great Exhibition, it contained stories to accompany each illustration. Walter ignored these stories for the large part; he liked to make up his own tale for each picture. Routinely and meticulously searching the local bookshops after school, Walter had eventually happened upon a copy with coloured plates in an unassuming bow-fronted window on Gillygate. After saving up for what seemed like forever, worrying that the next time he passed along the cobbles and gazed in the window the book would be gone, the day finally came when he eagerly parted with his pocket money – a whole six shillings – without a second thought. He knew he could have waited for his fourteenth birthday and kept his money, but the idea of delaying another five months was simply too much to bear. Besides, he knew his father wouldn’t understand an interest in such an odd topic, dismissing the idea until Walter agreed to ask for something more conventional. Perhaps a new cricket bat.
As it happened, by the time Walter’s birthday was approaching, he had his heart set on something much better than his book. One afternoon in late summer, walking through Newgate market with his parents, Walter’s mother spotted a poster for an upcoming local exhibition: “Oh, look Walter!” she said cheerfully, “isn’t that like the animals in your illustrations? It opens on your birthday. I imagine you’d like to go to that, wouldn’t you?”
Walter beamed uncontrollably. He could think of nothing he would rather do (short of having a birthday party with all of Ploucquet’s creatures as guests, of course). It was almost as if the Great Exhibition was coming to York just for him. Walter attempted to control his enthusiasm and form a response, but he was interrupted by his father’s tutting: “He already bought that daft book on the subject. Isn’t that enough for you, boy?”
Despite his father’s protest, when the opening day of the exhibition arrived, Walter was among the first to enter the hall with his parents. Stepping over the large threshold, he yawned audibly; the previous night had been a long one, flicking through the Comical Creatures book with renewed enthusiasm in anticipation of the following day. Careful to ensure such a gesture was not mistaken for boredom, Walter covered his gaping mouth as best he could. He had been in museums and galleries before, but there was something particularly eerie about the deathly silence that greeted him in the stuffy exhibition hall, before any real crowd had formed. The windows had been opened to allow in as much light as possible, but it was hardly bright. Sunlight occasionally pierced the air, exposing the thick dust before shining on the cold stone floor. Against the walls, right around the rectangular interior, were a series of wooden cabinets – some bigger than others – containing various creatures behind glass. This struck Walter as odd. He had assumed the animals would be out in the open, not imprisoned. It wasn’t as if they could go anywhere.
Near the left hand corner, almost tucked away behind a large cabinet, Walter spotted the familiar figure of a kitten. Instantly reminded of his favourite illustration from his book, he quickly bypassed the other tableaux to get a better look. Two creatures, a rabbit and a kitten, were facing each other on hind legs. Both wore miniature boxing gloves; the kitten appearing to react to a punch thrown by his opponent. Surrounding them was a small ring lined with rope, behind which a group of mice voiced their support for their chosen combatant.
Walter stared at the boxing kitten. Every few seconds, he closed his eyes as tight as he could. Then, after a short time, he quickly opened them again, hoping to catch the creature out if it had moved, dodging the rabbit’s attack. But it never did. The longer he looked at the unmoving animal, the more an aching feeling filled his stomach.
The previous autumn, walking home from school, Walter had come across a group of boys toying with a lifeless tabby cat in the alley he used as a shortcut. They may have found it, but more likely killed it. It was perfectly still, its back legs mangled and broken. When the boys had gone, he stroked the poor creature, surprised at how cold and stiff it was. He was crying when he arrived home that day, but managed to avoid his mother’s questioning until she forgot the whole thing.
Walter had looked at his favourite illustration hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times. In his imagination, the kittens always finished serenading the grumpy pig, moved on to the next house and began to annoy a different animal. Now, staring at the inanimate boxers in the exhibition hall, forced into position and dressed up for his amusement, he recognized the lives he had constructed for his furry friends did not exist. Their real lives had ended long ago, just like the cat in the alley.
Suddenly, he noticed a crowd had formed around him. People were pointing at the creatures in the various cabinets – a fox, a group of dormice, the kitten - and smiling, laughing. Walter felt sick. He experienced an unbearable desire to pry open the glass doors and touch the kitten’s fur. He wanted to know if it was cold, like the dead tabby. They had the same eyes – open, distant. Not wanting to attract attention, Walter held back these strange feelings and feigned interest until his parents decided it was time to leave.
“Well, boy,” said his father, “did you enjoy all that nonsense?”
His mother answered first: “I thought it was delightful, all those funny creatures!”
Walter remained silent. In the preface to his book, he had read even the Queen was delighted by Ploucquet’s stuffed animals at the Great Exhibition. Thinking about the frozen creatures, trapped between life and death in those glass cabinets, he found himself sinking into an immense sadness. All he knew was he never wanted to look at his illustrated book again.
Artisan, Naturalist, Taxidermist - experience the amazing anthropomorphic displays of Charles Miller! Young or old, no one will want to miss this curious exhibition!