Long before LOLcats and even before Harry Whittier Frees’ animal photographs, people enjoyed looking at animals placed in amusing human situations. Special-effects photography wasn’t yet widely available, so the next best thing was taxidermy. The craze for amusingly-posed animals began with German taxidermist Hermann Ploucquet, who exhibited his advanced taxidermy techniques at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London.
Ploucquet’s work dazzled Victoria and Albert, as well as Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Bronte, and six million other attendees. Though some of his gory displays incurred critics’ contempt, Ploucquet had his finger on the pulse of the art crowd, creating dioramas that mimicked the style of the fashionable paintings and sculptures of the day. The Victorians found the tableaux unequivocally beguiling, and Queen Victoria described them in her diary as “really marvelous.”
The fantastical allegorical scenes served to humanize the animals and animalize the human spectators in a delicious hybrid of delight and shame. The little landscapes of critters frozen in the midst of human activities were originally known as grotesques. Ploucquet took the art form to the next level with his dramatic tableaux, including scenes of kittens serenading a piglet, a weasel disciplining a classroom of rabbits, dueling dormice, ice skating hedgehogs, and action scenes portraying Reineke, or Reynard the Fox, a medieval European folk tale made famous by Goethe.
Ploucquet’s works were followed by those of Walter Potter, an even more prolific taxidermist, who created huge dioramas of animals doing human things, and left behind 10,000 specimens. Read about Victorian anthropomorphic taxidermy at Atlas Obscura.