Posted by: melissayang | October 20, 2010

mysterious skin

I keep meaning to update about material directly related to the coursework at hand, but getting distracted because there are so many interesting things tangentially related to Victorian visual and material culture that come up in everyday life and distract me. I’m going to go ahead and do a combination post of two of my favorite topics, before returning to cityscapes, street types, etc.

1. Victorian Taxidermy

I was just informed that a collection of Walter Potter’s taxidermy tableaux has (finally!) been reassembled (for the first time since they were auctioned of separately almost ten years ago) for a special showing in Primrose London’s Museum of Everything – it opens tomorrow! on Wednesday, and is supposed to run through Christmas.

Here is the link a friend sent me on the exhibit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1319869/Bizarre-world-Victorian-taxidermist-special-exhibition.html. Fairly thorough details, with a misspelled “Damien Hirst” throughout (sad, as he’s a main figure in pulling this thing together). Another one with more or less the same information, but with poorer graphics: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/oct/08/walter-potter-exhibition-museum-everything. This one gives a little more historical background regarding Potter himself. http://coilhouse.net/2010/10/walter-potter-collection-reassembled-in-london/.

I’m just linking things because almost everything you can find on this guy is online. I tried to order Walter Potter and His Museum of Curious Taxidermy by P.A. Morris off ILLiad for more background info, but apparently there are “4 owning libraries for this title — all in the U.K. None particpate in interlibrary loan,” so alas. Anyway, I am crossing my fingers it won’t be a once-in-a-lifetime reassembly of the collection.

2. Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

I had been itching looking for an excuse to write about anthropodermic bibliopegy – the practice of binding books in human skin – for some time, and though the topic admittedly moves beyond visual culture to material culture, from images of the body to the body itself, I figured since I was talking about taxidermy exhibits, I might as well throw this in as a bonus under a heading related to “skin.”

The practice of binding books in human skin has been around since virtually forever, but from the very few articles I can find on it (Jstor gives me nothing, help! It might also just be down tonight), it seems that books bound in human skin gained popularity during the 19th century as romantic collector items. I vaguely related this to the last few weeks’ topics, regarding prisoners, as many of the early books were documents of crime, bound in the criminal’s skin. I have found few links worth sharing, but there is this: http://www.hlrecord.org/2.4462/books-bound-in-human-skin-lampshade-myth-1.579032, which says, rather sourcelessly:

In the 19th century, book bindings in human skin captured the romantic notions of the upper class, and anthropodermic bindings became more common. A frequent subject of such bindings were anatomy textbooks, which doctors and medical students may have had bound in the skin of cadavers they had dissected. An early example is the anthropodermic book found in Brown’s John Hay library, Vesalius’ classic work of anatomy, De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). The close association of medical and legal gentry of the day led to more than a few law books bound in a similar manner.

Around the same time, the skin of executed criminals was occasionally used for book bindings. The first known example of this was the binding of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in the skin of criminal James Johnson (relation unknown), after the latter was hung in Norwich in 1818. The museum of Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, England contains a more famous example – an account of the trial proceedings against William Corder, perpetrator of the storied ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ of Maria Martin in 1827, bound in the executed murderer’s skin.

Okay, I promise the next post I make will actually be related to the readings, but I hope that was interesting at the very least! And if you’re so inclined, please please let me know if you know where I can find more information on the latter subject! (on the other hand, if you’re more interested in the first topic, I have many, many sources I can direct you to, as historical taxidermy in all its bizarre glory has been a research interest of mine in the past).


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