The sound of running feet, a gasp and a shriek of laughter heralded the arrival of a youngster at the Walk on the Wild Side exhibition in Tunbridge Wells and I knew exactly how he felt. Four glass fronted cabinets displaying a taxidermied squirrels boxing match is not something I’ve seen before either and to be perfectly honest it raised a rush of very conflicting emotions ranging from ‘what the hell is that?’ to ‘that’s actually quite clever’.
Just one shelf lower is another incredible sight, a bespectacled rook reading a sermon. The sign states that it was found in a Cotswold graveyard and what strikes me is that it was created as recently as 1960.
Another case features the fragile skeleton of a snake, so carefully coiled it seems to have merely paused for a moment while a brightly coloured bird of paradise perches alongside it. Above them, a figurine featuring a family of happy cats seems slightly incongruous and, initially, it’s hard to find the thread linking all the objects together but, if you take a moment to step back and look at room as a whole, the theme soon becomes clearer.
At the heart of exhibition is the relationship between humans and animals and every wall is covered in images. Ranging from an anatomical drawing of a rhinoceros, to richly painted fine art scenes and the more cartoon like depictions of a large family transformed into monkeys, the exhibition also explores the need humans have to make animals appear more ‘human’. Perhaps, initially, in an attempt to make the unknown more acceptable and less frightening or perhaps in an attempt to civilise the animal worlds less pc tendencies.
The display of preserved animals at the rear of the room raises the question of why the Victorian’s felt the need to stuff every animal they came across while the colourful illustrations of Dorothea Graff explore an alternative side to animal study. Regardless of the reasoning, artists from all disciplines have been intrigued by animals for centuries and the entire room is filled with a carefully selected collection of fine art, natural history and everyday objects. Several exhibits are on loan from the British Museum and although fairly small the exhibition is well worth a look.
So go on, be brave and take A Walk on the Wild Side. The exhibition is free to enter and is running until 20 September at the Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery.