"In a word, you must possess Promethean boldness, and bring down fire, and animation as it were, into your preserved specimen." --Charles Waterton, from his essay on taxidermy
"...has not the whole of history been a search for false monsters?" --Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
Figure 1. A portrait of Charles Waterton. The painter was Percy Fitzgerald.
Charles Waterton (1782-1865) is frequently cited as the type specimen of the British eccentric naturalist. His Wanderings in South America (1825) blended accurate observations of New World wildlife in the field (including the first good account of the behavior of sloths) with notes on politics, taxidermy, and the evils of the Hanoverian monarchy. From this sojourn, Waterton brought back the first curare for scientific and medicinal use in Europe, after witnessing its effective use in the field.
Waterton, known to all as the Squire of Walton Hall, was a dedicated ascetic and an even more dedicated climber: One famous story recounts his ascent of the dome of St. Peter's in Rome, where he left his gloves on top of the lightning conductor. In later life, "[h]e had no idea that he was doing anything out of the general course of things if he asked a visitor to accompany him to the top of a lofty tree to look at a hawk's nest..." A. generation of British schoolchildren grew up fascinated by his account in Wanderings of riding a large and violently unimpressed cayman for several minutes, and awed by his description of his failure to be bitten by vampire bats in Guiana, though he left his toe deliberately exposed from his hammock for just this purpose night after night.[4,5]
Waterton was a field naturalist par excellence and one of the first to convert land to the sole purpose of a wildlife sanctuary. He abhorred scientific nomenclature, John James Audubon (whom he called a charlatan), Protestants, Hanoverians, Hanoverian Protestants, rats (the presence of which in England he blamed on the Hanoverian Protestants), and, late in life, Charles Darwin; he loved the natural world, birds, taxidermy, and practical jokes.
The most enduring of the jokes are his numerous taxidermy mounts of imaginary animals, which combined his great skill in taxidermy with his drive to mock and satirize everything he detested about British politics, reformist religion, and formal science. The frontispiece of Wanderings features a drawing of an odd and haunting specimen called, then and now, the Nondescript. This was by no means the first true grotesque in taxidermy, but it was certainly one of the most widely published and cited of its time. As one scholar says, "Weird animals have always been popular... [Waterton] enjoyed foisting fakes on the general public, fakes such as the head of his 'Nondescript.'"
The Nondescript is an odd mixture of humanoid and anthropoid traits. As Waterton described it, "I also procured an animal which caused not a little speculation and astonishment...He was a large animal, and...I contented myself with his head and shoulders, which I cut off: and have brought them with me to Europe...The features of the animal are quite of the Grecian cast; and he has a placidity of countenance which shows that things went well with him in life." The specimen was even mounted in the style of a classical bust sculpture. It appears to have been most convincing: the Rev. Wood, Waterton's posthumous biographer, says that "Many persons indeed, on seeing the Nondescript, really thought it was human, and said that Waterton ought not to have been allowed to kill natives in order to show his skill in preserving their skins."
Exactly what went into the making of the Nondescript is still not fully clear, and there is disagreement in the accounts. The Rev. Wood states that it was made from the head and shoulders of a red howler monkey, and Jenkins (1978) concurs: "...in fact, the Nondescript was made from the skin of a red howler monkey which Waterton had manipulated with his usual skill so that it resembled a kind of simian gentleman of the period." Harriet Ritvo believes otherwise: "The credulity implicit in the search for crowd-pleasing nondescripts rapidly became the target of satire or parody, most famously in the stuffed creature whose hairy but distinctly human features graced the frontispiece of Charles Waterton's Wanderings in South America (1825).
Jenkins goes on to say "This Nondescript, [Waterton] announced, was the missing link in the evolution of Man from an ape-like creature according to the theory recently advanced by Mr. Charles Darwin." The Nondescript, however, had been created before the 1825 publication of Wanderings, and Darwin's On the Origin of Species was not published until 1859, suggesting that the Squire found new meanings for his satirical specimens throughout life. He must have had something else in mind when the specimen was created. Wood quotes a colleague of Waterton's as claiming that it was the exact likeness of a mutually detested schoolmate.
Aldington, however, constructs a convincing alternate explanation: the Nondescript represented, in eerie exactitude, a likeness of J. R. Lushington, Secretary to the Treasury. Lushington apparently entered the realm reserved previously for Hanoverians and Protestants by informing Waterton that any specimens Waterton brought into the country, unless he donated them to public institutions, "can only be delivered on the payment of the ad velorum duty of 20 per cent." Aldington writes: "His fourth trip to Guiana was undertaken, I submit, solely for the purpose of obtaining a specimen of that hitherto unknown animal, the Nondescript," intended as a likeness of Lushington. Though Waterton apparently denied this, Aldington notes of a later edition that "...[T]he way the denial is made in the 1837 edition of the First Series of Essays is such as to suggest the very thing the writer pretends to deny."
Other Delightful Grotesques
Figure 4. Waterton's work entitled John Bull and the National Debt.
The Nondescript was by no means Waterton's only grotesque. Most of the others were more blunt and direct. After his death, the surviving specimens were donated to his old school, Stonyhurst.
1. For exact science drones, a type specimen in the systematic sciences is the specimen which is selected as the representative of a new taxon (species, genus, etc.) in the publication establishing that new name and rank. Waterton, in other words, was a British eccentric naturalist's British eccentric naturalist.
2. From the biographical notes of the Rev. J. G. Wood. Reprinted in Wanderings in South America: The North-West of the United States and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820 & 1824: With Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds, Etc., for Cabinets of Natural History., Charles Waterton, edited with biographical information and explanatory index by the Rev. J. G. Wood. The original Wanderings was published in 1825; Wood's addenda were added after Waterton's death. 1983 edition published with introduction by David Bellamy: NY: Hippocrene Books, Inc. p. 24.
3. A New World crocodile, possibly Crocodylus acutus or C. intermedius. The illustration in Wanderings makes it appear to be 6-7 feet long, or 2-2.5 meters, if you will.
4. Waterton had an absolute faith in bloodletting as the best way to treat all ills (the Rev. Wood describes Waterton's self-medication regimen as consisting solely of "the lancet and calomel," and suggests that Waterton had tapped the claret so much that none but a starving vampire bat would be interested.).
5. Toes figure in the Waterton canon several times. One Dr. Hobson stated that "When Mr. Waterton was seventy-seven years of age, I was witness to his scratching the back part of his head with the big toe of his right foot." Cited in Jenkins, Alan C. 1978. The Naturalists: Pioneers of Natural History. NY: Mayflower Books Inc. p. 66.
6. The first published grotesque is seen in a work by Guillaume Rondelet from 1554-5, Libri de Piscibus Marinis. It is a "bishop fish" similar to the devil fish made today by carefully cutting and drying small skates and rays.
7. Merrill, Lynn L. 1989. The Romance of Victorian Natural History. Oxford University Press. p. 88.
8. From Wood's index to Wanderings, p. 441 in 1983 edition.
9. Jenkins, p. 73.
10. Ritvo, Harriet. 1997. The Platypus and the Mermaid, and other figments of the classifying imagination. Harvard University Press. p. 55.
11. Jenkins, p. 73.
12. Aldington, Richard. 1949. The Strange Life of Charles Waterton. London: Evans Brothers Limited. p. 94.
13. Ibid., p. 110.
14. Ibid., pp. 113-114.
This article is republished with permission from the November-December 2000 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.