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23 Nov 2018

A ribbiting display

Written by Alexandra Hill (with thanks to Michelle Atherton for the title) and photographed by Christophe Brogliolo
Two frogs 'duelling' on the lawn in front of Hill of Tarvit Mansion
Too hard for any frog's digestion / To have his froghood call’d in question! (The Duellists, 1754)
While two frogs duel to the death, two frog musicians play – a strange scene that stands out even among the amazing collections at Hill of Tarvit.

Discovered in a cupboard at Hill of Tarvit in the early 1990s, the exact provenance of the stuffed frog duellers and musicians is shrouded in mystery. The one taxidermy item listed in the 1938 inventory was that of a ‘stuffed bird in glass case’. The only other information about the frogs, revealed by a volunteer, was that originally there were more of them found in the cupboard, possibly other members of the band, but these are sadly no longer part of the collection.

The art of taxidermy dates back as far as the ancient Egyptians, who mummified cats and dogs by preserving them with oils and spices so that they could be placed in tombs. Taxidermy as we think of it today started in the 16th century, although it was relatively crude – an example being the draping of a cured hide over a wooden frame. By the 18th century, the use of wire frames and moss, wool or hair padding resulted in a more realistic animal. Deadly arsenic was included in the preservative used to keep pests away and stop deterioration. Nowadays, the skins are sculpted more precisely using mannequins, and much less toxic ingredients stabilise the organic matter.

A stuffed frog is mounted on a stand and is shown playing a tune on a guitar.
Frog playing a hopping tune on the guitar

Taxidermy is found throughout the Trust’s collections. Project Reveal has catalogued many of the more traditional hunting trophies, from the walls of mounted antlers at Mar Lodge to the polar bear rug in the library at Newhailes. Team East also discovered a stuffed deer leg wrapped up in a cupboard at Newhailes; the whereabouts of the rest of the deer remains a mystery. For many museums and institutions, stuffed animals were brought back from expeditions and displayed for scientific and educational purposes. An important example is the wild haggis on display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum! Meanwhile, in less salubrious surroundings, different animals were stitched together to create mythical creatures such as mermaids to entertain crowds at travelling shows. More recently ‘rogue taxidermy’ has emerged as an art movement with some sculptors reusing tattered Victorian specimens to create new works of art.

The frogs at Hill of Tarvit are excellent examples of the anthropomorphic displays popular in the late 19th century. One of the most famous creators was Walter Potter from England, who made The Guinea Pigs’ Cricket Match and Band, as well as a moving mechanical scene known as The Athletic Frogs. Another well-known taxidermist is William Hart, who devised the boxing squirrels diorama on display at Leith Hall. While the creator of the frogs at Hill of Tarvit is unknown, frogs were easy to acquire and suited being manipulated into human-like positions. Large collections of frog taxidermy are found in Switzerland, accumulated by one of Napoleon’s guards, as well as in Croatia, home to the collection of Hungarian taxidermist Ferenc Mere.

A stuffed frog is mounted on a stand and is shown playing a flute. It stands behind a music stand.
A froggy flautist

Why the maker decided to have the frogs duelling and playing music is another question, but these are not unusual scenes in taxidermy. After lying untouched for 100 years, curators of the 19th-century ‘Time Capsule Mansion’ in France discovered a ‘battle of the frogs’ display as well as a violin-playing rat. Duelling with swords was an important aspect of honour in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, with participants demanding ‘satisfaction’ against slurs and insults. By the time these frogs were stuffed in the 19th century, duelling had declined in prevalence. The last Scottish duel with pistols is believed to have taken place at Cardenden in 1826, less than 20 miles away from Hill of Tarvit. Music, meanwhile, has played a part in culture and society for thousands of years.

Even though taxidermy is not as popular as it once was, these items provide an intriguing insight into the collecting and display practices of the past. Although frogs were relatively simple to skin and stuff without stitching, their fragility made them a difficult subject even for the most skilled of taxidermists. The frogs at Hill of Tarvit are noteworthy for simply surviving as long as they did without protective cases. Whether telling the story of scientific discovery, highlighting the hunting pastimes of a bygone era or creating new creatures and ideas through art and display, taxidermy is a thought-provoking topic and a skill which continues to be used and adapted today.

Two stuffed frogs are mounted on a stand and are shown duelling with swords.
While one frog wins, the other croaks

Project Reveal is a Trust-wide collections digitisation project. It will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the National Trust for Scotland’s material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 24 months from July 2017 until July 2019.

Project Reveal

Find out more about this Trust-wide collections digitisation project.

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