Mounted seals, shrewd stoats and a taxidermy tableau: The Cabinet of Curiosities

| 06 February 2014

Curator's Choice: Ancient seals, rodent crime scenes and taxidermy from the Cabinet of Curiosities gallery at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery

The Woolston Seal

A monochrome photo of two men in suits holding a seal during the early 20th century
© Culture Warrington
“One of our most popular exhibits, the grey seal will be making a reappearance after a brief spell in storage during the building work.

In 1908, the seal swam up the Mersey and entered Paddington Lock. It was a very rare sight as grey seals generally live on the rocky coasts on the West of Scotland and similar places.

After a failed rescue attempt it was shot, mounted and presented to the museum, bringing in 14,000 extra visitors that year.

It was a very rare sight as grey seals generally live on the rocky coasts on the West of Scotland and similar places. Visitors of all ages love the seal – we have had several claims from visitors that it was their grandfather that shot him.”

An English Virginal made by Thomas Bolton in 1684

A photo of a man playing an ancient keyboard inside a music room
© Culture Warrington
“This early keyboard instrument is one of the most important items in the museum’s collections – only 21 similar English virginals survive and this is the last one made in this country.

The note was made by pressing a key which plucked a string with a quill made from the hollow base of a bird’s feather. Unlike the larger harpsichord it only played one note per string. It was small enough to be played in the home and even placed on a table.

Why is it called a virginal? No one really knows. Possibly because it was usually played by women, sounds like a young girl singing or comes from the Latin word ‘virga’, meaning the rods on the ends of its keys

We don’t know the name of its original owner but it was given to the Museum by a Mr Wadsworth in 1876. There is a hidden compartment at the front on the right to keep music in.

It has a Latin motto, Musica Donum Dei, meaning Music Is the Gift of God, on the maker’s nameplate. The painted scene inside the lid was a typical English decoration rather than a portrait of the owner’s house."

The Trial scene – a taxidermy tableau

A photo of a woman working with small taxidermy specimens of rats and small birds
© Culture Warrington
“Lieutenant Colonel Charles Lyon of Appleton Hall donated this satirical scene to the Museum on November 5 1929. This trial scene depicts the trial of the Hon Grantly F Berkeley MP for cockfighting, and uses animals to represent the people involved.

Berkeyley is represented by a rat, two bantams depict the police officers, and Tawny and Barn owls become the magistrates.

A stoat plays Mr Druit – a shrewd lawyer – and there are also water rats (the constable), hawks, jays, weasels, magpies, hedgehogs and hens.

A mouse sits on the Magistrate’s Chair making a long nose, telling the Magistrate he is as bad as the prisoner because whenever he gets the chance he catches and eats him.

It was a known fact that the two Magistrates frequented each other’s estates purposely for cockfighting, keeping a stock of birds. But despite this they found the prisoner guilty and fined him.”

Two male Greater Birds of Paradise from New Guinea

A photo of two birds with huge feathers stuffed against a black background
© Culture Warrington
“It’s hard to believe that these colourful exotic creatures are distant relatives of the humble black crow. These superb examples of the taxidermist’s art also allow us to see this exotic creature at close hand.

They also remind us of changing attitudes to the conservation of the natural world. The courtship display of the males is spectacular but their gaudy feathers have brought them close to extinction.

According to history: Males dance in certain trees in the forest which have an immense space for the birds to play and exhibit their plumes.  On one of these trees, a dozen or 20 full-plumaged male birds assemble together, raise up their wings, stretch out their necks and elevate their exquisite plumes, keeping them in a continual vibration.

Meanwhile they fly across from branch to branch in great excitement so that the whole tree is filled with waving plumes in every variation of attitude and motion.

During the excitement of the display, the wings are raised vertically over the back, the head is bent down and stretched out, and the long plumes are raised up and expanded until they form two magnificent golden fans striped with deep red at the base and fading off into pale brown.

The natives of Papua New Guinea had always used the feathers in elaborate head-dresses for ceremonies and also to trade with as money.

The feathers of these legendary birds have been prized in the West ever since they were first discovered in the 1520s. During the mid-19th century thousands of Birds of Paradise were killed to trim women’s hats.

By 1924 the hunting of Birds of Paradise was banned but it was almost too late for several species.”

The Woolston Gibbet Irons

A photo of a large metal and wood hanging device in the gallery of a museum
© Culture Warrington
“The tale of the Woolston Highwayman may have echoes of the legendary Dick Turpin, but in real life highwaymen were nothing more than common criminals with scant regard for human life.

In the early hours of Thursday September 15 1791, a young post boy rode out of Warrington carrying mail and money bound for Manchester. Along the Woolston Road, near Bruche Bridge, he was set upon by two men, beaten about the head, stabbed and pulled from his horse, and left lying face down in the brook with his hands tied behind him.

The victim, James Hogwarth, subsequently died from his injuries or possibly drowned. Warrington was shocked by the incident, not least because he left behind a pregnant young widow.

The Post Office offered a substantial reward of £200 for the capture of his assailants, although their concern was more to prevent further robberies. Subsequently suspicion fell upon Edward Miles and his associates, although the evidence connecting them to the murder might nowadays be regarded as circumstantial.

Miles and Thomas Fleming were eventually brought to trail at Lancaster Assizes and sentenced to hang for the crime. The judge ordered that an example should be made of Miles, the ring leader.

His body was taken back to the scene of the crime and encased in a metal skeleton suspended from a wooden gibbet post to warn future attackers of post boys of the fate which would await them.

In reality, Hogwarth’s colleagues were probably more scared by the experience of riding down Manchester Road on a dark and stormy night and hearing the gibbet irons creaking in the wind.

The Gibbet Irons were taken to nearby Bruche Hall and kept in the stables until the servants complained and the hall’s tenant, William Beamont, donated them to the Museum.”

Polly Morgan, A long hard look in the Mirror (2013). Taxidermy, concrete, resin, steel

A photo of a stuffed black rabbit appearing to be asleep on the end of a slab of stone
© Polly Morgan / Culture Warrington
“This piece, created by contemporary artist Polly Morgan, is the most recent curio to be exhibited within the gallery. It was commissioned, through HLF funding, to link contemporary and historical which represents the ideology of the gallery.

This new work faintly alludes to Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. A long hard look in the Mirror is a concrete beam dividing a dead baby rabbit and an orange balloon.

The balloon can be read as a seed, trying to push its way aboveground, or as the sun; our last known quantity before the metaphorical curtain of heaven is drawn.

Both readings suggest the impossibility of life and death ever being known to one another, despite their perennial proximity.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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