Collectors have always produced catalogues of their collections. These have taken a wide variety of forms, from the luxurious to the basic; they could be taxonomic check-lists of contents, or lavish and erudite works explaining the cosmology of the collection, representing it in an idealised form or virtually extending its contents beyond its physical reality with images, knowledge and references. They could function as sales catalogues, encyclopaedias linked to empirical experience or personal microcosms on paper, explaining the historia of each object.
I wanted to see what would happen if I made a catalogue of my collection. Each item is a metonym, a part standing in for the whole: the entire animal, the taxonomic group, the place, the experience, the self. This is the fundamental architecture of collections, and why they can be so powerful.
The top shelf
This group of objects might loosely be classed as ‘exoskeletons and endoskeletons, inner and outer armours: carapaces, feathers, spikes, tusks, bones. But it is not just that. It crosses taxonomic boundaries, time periods – both ephemeral and the fossil, habitats, function and geography. It’s heterogeneity makes it microcosmic, a host brought together in a small space through tokens, a metaphorical zoo. It plays with categories, size and appearance, a miniature glass heron standing fragile beside a giant aerated, armoured fish, or bulbous beetle, an aerial lizard dwarfed by an ancient shell.
I will start from the left.
The strange spikey-looking bone was a mystery posed by my hermit-like uncle in Canada when I was there one deathly humid summer, aged 18. He told me I could have it if I could guess what it was. To my great frustration I failed to identify the bizarre bone, like something from a horror movie. He gave it to me anyway, telling me it was the sail erecting spike from a marlin fish, which his wife used to fish. These bones apparently gained the fish its name after the ‘marlinspike’ tool used for ‘marling’ in marine ropework. Im certain it was the other way around.
Next to it lies a horn from a springbok that I picked up while on a volunteer programme in Sanbona Wildlife reserve in South Africa when I was 17. I spent three weeks laying fencing, photographing wildlife, feeding white tigers with ostrich legs and getting drunk and flirting outrageously with the rangers (who were, thankfully, good enough to see me as just a bit too young to be a sexual option). They had all sorts of skulls lying around base camp, and, while I was fully prepared to take a full set of glorously twisting Kudu horns (to hell with Customs), I was persuaded that this might be rather less trouble. The marlin spike and horn rest on a small stoat skin in winter colouring. I cannot remember where from.
The group of bony white objects appear to belong together, but are radically disparate. Two bear teeth, each as long as a thumb and creamy white, I bought while on that same summer in Canada with my father. I procured a raccoon skin and Arctic fox pelt from the same dealer, and had to restrain myself from buying ever so much more.
They sit next to the vertebra of a fallow deer, from one of the wild butchery courses I have been on with my father. After a demonstration, we are given a fallow caracass to string up in a tree and slowly dismantle (tip: from the bottom up), one side each. Of course it was never a race (he always won). The short straw was the job of removing the anus. I put the vertebra in bleach, but left it too long, so the bone is paper-white, but crumbles at the touch.
Nestled in the crook of the warthog tusk is a replica of an intricately carved Japanese netsuke, small statues used to hook hanging objects onto cloth belts. The original would have been made of ivory. It was present from my mother after a visit to the British Museum about 15 years ago.
The warthog tusk is part of a whole trove of wonders I brought back from a blissful family holiday in South Africa in my early teens. Winldebeest and springbok skins, nests, box upon box of insects collected fanatically for three weeks, much to my sister’s chagrin. She’s never wanted to shar a room with me since. The real kicker was when I excitely shouted for her to come into the bathroom while on safari because a monstrous bloody arachnid, a primitive solifuge with horrendous vertically biting jaws, had fallen into the bath. That it fell while I was in the bath didn’t worry me one bit. But she screamed the place down. Seeing it pinned securely on a setting board didn’t seem to help much for some reason. That insect collection won me a prize at the following Amateur Entomological Society fair.
The short-beaked bird skull is a kestrel, a birthday gift from my parents- my father found it on a weekend away counry walk, pristine, just as it was, the knife-blade beak almost ready to strike again.
The long-nosed, big-eyed woodcock skull and grinning hedgehog skull are purchases from Ebay. Last year I mysteriously found a woodcock lying, soft and perfect, on the pavement, presumably dropped from a game dealer’s van. I pored over every detail of the beautiful speckled body before cutting off the wings, tail and head and cooking the meat. I planned to macerate the head for the skull, but failed to do it properly. It got lost at some point from my terrace. This purchase stands in for that particular collecting fail, though lacks the beak sheath I would have liked it to have. The hedgehog was purely a taxonimic choice- I have no insectivore skulls.
The fossils at the front include a trilobite, one of my first fossils, purchased from a large craft fair with my family when I was about 10. It has oxidised, the red-iron rust re-obscuring the shape of the ancient animal. There are fossil sharks teeth, next to a half-megalodon tooth given to me for my 21st birthday by one of Guy’s best friends. He was an inveterate fossil geek, though would never admit to it. Fourteen of us were staying in a wonderful Tudor manor house for three days, plentifully stocked with booze, food and inebriants, free to explore and carouse. He took me aside to my bedroom and sheepishly presented this fabuous fossil, torn between underplaying his own enthusiasm and wanting to impress on me just how special it was.
The belemnite fossil I purchased from a market stall on one of my undergraduate stalks around Cambridge, while in a bleak and dark part of my mind. My friends at the time, no longer, were both impressed and confused that I should think of buying such a thing. It points to a red flying lizard skin, of the draco genus I bought recently. These lizards have lateral extensions of skin, patagia, strengthened by elongated ribs that allow them to glide up to 60m in the South East Asian forest canopies they frequent. In the corner lurks a fossil fish belonging to a past iteration of Guy. He very much prefers living fish.
A quartet of insects: a fantastic Atlas beetle (Chalcosoma atlas) set in flight, a Scarabidaea beetle and two Thai fulgorid bugs – a dark-horned lantern fly (pyrops spinolae) and one with waxy white secretions (ketoester wax) from it’s abdomen like a comet’s tail. All cherry-picked from the entomology fairs I frequented in my early teens.
At the back you can see an elegant little heron, which was a gift bought for me by Guy from Venice. After a long morning exploring, we found a glass worker’s cave of wonders, a small workshop populated with myriad beasts, birds, insects and plants, none of which he seemed especially keen to part with, though they were for sale. He packed up the heron grudgingly, and with great care, as if sending off one of his children with a pair of suspicious strangers.
The heron is dwarfed by the puffer fish, one of those stereotypical and slightly smelly Carribbean tourist souvenirs. The holiday in Trinidad and Tobago was my first heady experience of the tropics. I will never forget coming out of my hotel room the first morning and seeing a blue crested mot mot sitting, startled, on the grass in front of me, its self-fashioned tail topiary curled awkwardly aroud it in the grass. I spent two weeks snorkeling in the sun-dappled space between coral reef and lagoon surface, surrounded by pop-art nudibranchs, punk urchins and watercolour reef fish, scouring the rich pickings of corals, venus comb shells and hermit crabs on the beaches, or creeping amongst foliage to watch night herons and mannequin birds dancing like wind-up clockwork toys. I buried an exquisite shell there, promising myself I would return to that tropical paradise and collect it. I doubt I will. What I experienced probably doesn’t exist any more.
The beaver skull I acquired while driving in New York State on holiday with Guy. It was the first time I had walked into a dealer’s storehouse, walls, floor and ceiling festooned with almost every species imaginable, and realised there was not a single pelt I wanted (without verging on the highly unethical). My current collection numbers at about 15 species already. So I bought this toothy wonder instead. It goes with a beaver pelt that covers the back of a chair by the dining table, all slick, waterproof overcoat and soft, warm undercoat that you can bury your fingers in.
A likewise fabulously exaggerated skull – a male black-casqued hornbill I ordered on a whim about 5 years ago. I was just re-learning to give into impulses and desires, after years of control and suppression. It was, perhaps, one of the most unpleasant periods of my life, aggressively recovering from a long-term eating disorder. The bulb on the skull is used to show off to potential mates, the bigger the bulb the beefier the male. It less more monstrously engorged than my own broken body felt at the time, swollen and painful. That was not a mating display, but felt like a shameful embodiment of monstros ill-fit that I could no longer hide.
For the back panel, at the centre are some crisply curled mallard feathers, the ones that sit at the drakes’ rumps during mating season, that refuse to fit into a two dimensional album. You can also see some porcupine spines behind the puffer fish, egret plumes, peacock sword feathers, several moths and butterflies, a condor feather, and my most precious feather: the secondary wing feather of a Bengal eagle owl. The bird shed during a birds of prey demonstration when I was about 13. The moment I saw it helicoptering elegantly to the ground, my adrenaline peaked. I had to have that feather. The moment the display was finished I sprinted like lightening to where I had seen it drop.
Probably rather obnoxiously to the several other people strolling over, in a rather more British manner, with exactly the same idea.