Victorian Taxidermy

TE Gunn Taxidermy

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T.E.Gunn, Taxidermist, Norwich, Norfolk

1844 until 1923

Thomas Edward Gunn

Thomas Gunn (1844-1923), F.L.S.,was born at Norwich in Norfolk. He was educated at the old Blue Coat School. Gunn was apprenticed to John Sayer, a Norwich taxidermist, taking over the business on Sayer's death. A master craftsman, Gunn won medals and honours for his skill in the art of taxidermy. He wrote several papers on birds of East Anglia. Gunn was a founder member of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society. Thomas Gunn was the largest taxidermy business in Norwich and was based in St. Giles Street. Competitors included Cole of Norwich and Roberts of Norwich. He ran the business from 1844-1923 bearing his name. His son, Frederick (FE Gunn) retired from his fathers business in 1941 aged 72. The firm closed its doors in 1950, ending nearly 100 years of continuous trading.
TE Gunn cases tended to follow a very similar pattern of ebonised pine cases lined with paper, which was then either left plain or subtley painted a light blue. These cases were in the main "flat fronted", with only glass at the front. That said, wall hanging domes and multi-sided glass cases were also produced but the "mass production" for want of a better word was flat fronted cases.

The Ogilvie Bird Collection in Ipswich, Suffolk.

For more detailed information about the services of the museum, it's educational fascilities and opening times the please go the link highlighted. We recommend that you support this museum by visiting this historically important and complete collection. Ipswich Museum

Fergus Mentieth Ogilvie


Virtually all the birds collected were obtained between 1879-1914, from Suffolk and Scotland. Suffolk being part of the family home and surrounding area and also the family home located in Barcaldine, near Loch Ceran. The cases represent collecting at it finest. The birds were taken and their exact location noted, and the dioramas recreated to represent the scene. This is not dis-similar to the undertakings by E.T.Booth of Brighton, who had already completed his won collection, housed in a purpose built museum. The fact that both collections are so similar as both men knew Thomas Gunn, if fact Gunn had made several visits to Brighton to review the collection and how they were presented. It is fair to say though that the cases in the Ogilvie collection have fared better in terms of preservation and also the quality of the taxidermy being somewhat more competently executed by perhaps one of the finest taxidermists of his day.
The Ogilvie bird collection was being assembled shortly after the completion of the Booth Collection in Brighton, so it should come as no surprise that both collections are often compared. Edward Booth, was a frequent visitor to Breydon Water in Norfolk and it is well documented that both Gunn and Booth knew each other well. It is also clear if Booth and Ogilvie had any relationship, often shooting together at Ogilvies estate in Suffolk.
Ogilvie, perhaps unlike Edward Booth did employ people to collect specimens for the collection. Ogilvie employed a marsh "gunner" named Alfred Alexander to collect wading and seabirds at Thorpe Mere, which it is understood formed part of the Sizewell estate owned and managed by the Ogilvie family. This area of land, somewhat altered from its original aspect is now controlled by the RSPB and is know as the Minsmere bird reserve.
From the recent book written on the subject of the collection it is suggested that TE.Gunn and the then widow of FM Ogilvie disputed the ownership of several cases from the collection and it appears that there was somewhat of an acrimonious exchange of letters that certain cases were returned to the collection to ensure the collections completeness. This in our mind is a little tragic given that the collection would be less significant had indeed it had been compiled by a lesser taxidermist than Thomas Gunn. We feel that Ogilvie was fortunate enough to be located in the region where Gunn practiced taxidermy. The collection in our view is more of a tribute to him.
It has also to be remember and considered that bird / specimen collecting for scientific research did involve the shooting of birds and collecting of eggs. This has to be considered in the time it was undertaken. Limited access to Photographic equipment, limited cinematography, as seen today necessitated the collecting of birds by shooting them, often at the time of breeding to collect the specimen in its best breeding plumage. Nowadays there is less requirement to do so.
The collection is housed again typically in the Gunn (Norfolk) style of flat fronted cased, subtle duck egg blue backgrounds and groundwork which in the whole is fairly generic. Gunn, like the work of others, Hutchings by example are almost universally recognized, without the requirement to examine a trade label. Each of the Ogilvie cases contain data that states the place, date of capture of each bird and who collected the specimens. The reverse of the cases are hand written, presumable by Gunn himself. The Ipswich Museum houses most of the collection, which comprises some 235 cases, containing well over 700 specimens, that does not include the cabinet skins that were donated to the British Museum.
Upon his death in 1918, the collection was presented to the County of Suffolk by Ogilvie’s widow and the collection has remained in-situ ever since. It appears that some of the collection is missing and never made it to Ipswich. One case in particular (Red Crested Pochards) that was requested by Ogilvie to be included, but he never got his wish. This case remains in private hands to this day.
Partly the reason for the collection being in such fantastic condition was the attention to detail given by the taxidermist. The flat front style lends itself to preserving the specimens from direct sunlight and also reduces the number of entry points for insects. Gunn cases within the Ogilvie collection also were lined with canvas rather than just paper. This allowed for the case to "flex" under normal conditions within tearing this lining, thus increasing the insect proofing of the cases. The canvas was painted in the same style and even after 100 plus years of application it still looks in reasonable condition with limited tearing. This in contrast to more traditionally lined cases with plain paper most likely would have faired less well. One can only imagine the results had TE Gunn undertaken the creation of watercolours to each case?. That said the simplicity of the cases have a charm of their own.
Perhaps one of the finest taxidermist Gunn employed was George Herd (1876-1926), a diligent man was an artistic eye. Perhaps less artistic was the output of Fred Ashton, whose work sadly lacks the same attention to detail. We have seen some of his cases and they are of lesser quality. It has been reported that Gunn won medals for his company's work at the 1881 National Fisheries Exhibition in Norwich where he displayed some 250 specimens of locally collected fish, birds and mammals.
For more detailed and accurate information recently created on the subject of this collection, you may wish to acquire the work of Christopher Frost. This now scarce book, entitled "The Ogilvie Bird Collection" dated 1989, was limited to precisely 250 copies. It is an in depth review of the collection, FM Ogilvie himself and of course TE Gunn. It is recommended but hard to come by.
It is worth noting too that when a taxidermist was asked to mount a particular bird or mammal, that the specimen would have been fresh and not frozen. TE Gunn by specific examples would have dealt with fresh birds in summer plumage which meant due to temperature alone that those who were employed to skin and then fix those skins would have had to work quickly to ensure that the skins were tanned and did not slip. The term slip refers to the degradation of the tissue that held the hair and feather follicles in place. Slipped skin would not have held the feathers in place and they would have simply fallen out. One can only image the shear number of birds that would have arrive daily and would have therefore required immediate attention in terms of skinning and recording the weight, sex and colours of feet and bills before decay and time faded both. It is not known whether the process was undertaken in stages or each bird was attended and completed in one continuous process. We suspect that the taxidermied species was completed in one continuous process and then left to dry. Groups of birds with young were then assembled with the resultant groundwork at a later date. The displays therefore with the number of birds and an appreciation of the work involved should be viewed in that context. The number of man hours required for each specific grouping would have been significant.

Henry Balfour

Henry Balfour was the first curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum. He was born in Croydon in 1863 and started working at the Museum when he was only 22 years old. He devoted the rest of his life to looking after the ethnography collections at Oxford. Balfour was a great traveller. He travelled to Norway, Finland and Russian Lapland to study whales and whaling traditions, he visited South Africa four times, as well as Australia, Indonesia, the USA, Canada, India, Brazil, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and other East African countries. He always covered a lot of ground wherever he went, and his journeys were often very sociable. At every stop he would meet museum curators, mayors, governors and consuls, collectors, other travellers and a host of local residents.
Balfour's initial job offer was for one year, but he quickly started negotiating with the University for a more permanent position. By 1889 he was known as the 'Sub-Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum', and in late 1890 he was appointed Curator, with the same status as the professors working in the University Museum. He held this position until his death, at the age of seventy-five, in 1939.
The collection is housed today in Ipswich and we recommend that if you are interested in this subject matter that you should pay a visit. The collection gives a rare insight into Victorian conservation and field observations, as well as the lengths people went to in pursuit of this scientific study.

Victorian cases by TE Gunn.

Victorian Razorbills by TE Gunn.

Victorian Black Winged Stilt by TE Gunn.

Victorian Little Tern with nest by TE Gunn.

Victorian Pomeraine Skua by TE Gunn.

Victorian Great Crested Gebes in close up by TE Gunn.

Victorian Long Tailed Duck by TE Gunn.

Victorian Razorbill chick by TE Gunn.

Victorian Razorbills with eggs by TE Gunn.

Victorian Reed Warbler by TE Gunn.

Victorian Redshanks by TE Gunn.

Victorian Gannet with egg by TE Gunn.

Victorian Red Kite by TE Gunn.

Victorian Velvet Scoters by TE Gunn.

Victorian Wheatears by TE Gunn.

Victorian Hen Harrier by TE Gunn.

Victorian Widgeon Hen by TE Gunn.

Victorian Osprey in close up by TE Gunn.

Victorian Black Redstart in close up by TE Gunn.

Victorian Dotterels by TE Gunn.

Victorian Hobby with prey by TE Gunn.

Victorian cases by TE Gunn.

Victorian Smew Hen by TE Gunn.

Victorian cliff scene by TE Gunn.

Victorian Common Buzzards with nest and chicks by TE Gunn.

Victorian Wood Sandpipers by TE Gunn.

Victorian Curlew with chicks by TE Gunn.

Victorian Reed Bunting by TE Gunn.

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