Hodnet Hall in Shropshire, home of the Heber family for centuries, formed its natural history collection during the golden era of taxidermy: the early 1870s to the 1920s.
At the time the trophies of big game hunting, cases of birds and animals from the various dominions of the British empire were de rigueur in every Victorian house of good taste and science.
As detailed in written accounts and photograph albums (elements of which were reproduced in the catalogue), several Victorian and Edwardian Hebers were keen international travellers.
Among a string of voyages were two hunting trips made by Algernon Heber Percy (1845-1911) and his wife Alice to Canada in 1877-78, and others taken by Hugh Lewis Heber-Percy (1853-1925) to Australia, Africa, India and the Far East.
The trophies they brought back were preserved by leading London taxidermists, including Rowland Ward’s ‘The Jungle’ emporium at 166 Piccadilly, as well as those local to the family seat. Originally they were given pride of place in the main hall.
However, after Hodnet was used as a convalescent home for wounded officers in the First World War, its stuffed animals were relegated to the stables where, later functioning as a tearoom, they stayed. During a recent refurbishment they were deemed surplus to requirements.
Thirty years ago a collection such as this might have been sold for very modest sums under the cover of darkness (many museums did just that) but the market today is far more vibrant. As those who followed the sale at Aynhoe Park last week will know, taxidermy is enjoying a second golden age as interior decoration par excellence.
The collection from Hodnet Hall was sold – with all necessary CITES approvals – to an international cast of buyers at Tennants (20% buyer’s premium) in Leyburn on January 15. The 116 entries all found buyers for a hammer total of £171,050 that was almost 70% over the top estimate.
The highest-priced lots were a series of monumental cased dioramas of Australian fauna, as collected by intrepid family members in the final decades of the 19th century.
The largest, which measured 8ft x 6ft 11in (2.44 by 2.13m) was by Rowland Ward. Specimens included a full family of kangaroos, a koala, fruit bats, a goanna and a bearded dragon plus a pelican, black-headed stork and kookaburras. A Rowland Ward wax trade stamp appeared upper left to the front glass while an engraved copper shield read Queensland, Collected by AHP, AHHP, JRHP, 1892.
An extraordinary example of the famous taxidermist’s work, it sold for £25,000 (estimate £10,000-15,000) to a European private buyer using thesaleroom.com. Buyers at the sale came from the UK, US, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Australia and Switzerland.
Although it lacked a signature, a large case of birds native to Australasia collected by HHLP (Hugh Lewis Heber-Percy) in 1872 was also probably by Rowland Ward. It numbered 61 specimens and more than 50 species, each identified for the saleroom by ornithologist Roger Stansfield and listed in the catalogue. One of the glass panes of the ‘walk around’ oak framed display case was lacking but that was of little concern to bidders who competed it to £17,000 (estimate £4500-6500. The buyer was a European institution.
Sold at £15,000 (estimate £8000- 12,000) was a 3ft 7in x 4ft 2in (1.04 x 1.32m) floor-standing case of Australian mammals and reptiles signed and dated to the interior floor H Shaw, Salop, 76. A copper shield reads Australia, Collected by HLHP (for Hugh Lewis Heber-Percy).
Henry Shaw (1812-87) was a notable local name. Operating from Shrewsbury high street, his clients included the Hill family at Hawkstone Park and Ludlow Museum.
This case, mounted on an artificial blue-grey rock ledge within an oak case as was Shaw’s trademark, included three platypuses, a goanna flying squirrel and three quolls. The buyer came via thesaleroom.com.
Also by Shaw was a 5ft 5in x 5ft (1.65 x 1.53m) case of birds collected by Heber-Percy in India in 1872. More than 37 species were identified, from a Himalayan monal to a Tibetan sandgrouse, alongside two juvenile gharial crocs. The hammer price bid from the US was £9000.
Cases of this size (similar to those that can be viewed at the Horniman Museum in London’s Forest Hill and at Clandon Park, Surrey) rarely appear on the market, although several dioramas with Australian flora and fauna do provide some recent price comparison.
In November a small naturalistic tableau combining a duck-billed platypus, a blue-tongued skink, a humming bird, a snake and a beetle sold for £4000 at Martel Maides in St Peter Port, while in August Windsor Auctions took £7000 for a Rowland Ward case of four New Zealand birds (a tui, a kiwi, a kea and the critically endangered kakapo).
Bear and stag
Further notable results from Hodnet included a full mount of a young adult North American black bear standing upright holding on to a tree trunk (a souvenir of Algernon Heber’s 1877 trip to the Canadian Rockies) that sold for £6500, and a Kashmir stag or hangul by Ward that made £4000.
When shot by RJHP in Bara Singh, Dandwar, Kashmir in 1887, there were several thousand of this sub-species of elk in the Kashmir valley but habitat destruction and poaching have reduced their numbers dramatically. According to a census in 2019, there were only 237 hanguls.
Exotic birds fly into Hampshire
A 2ft 6in (74cm) high case of exotic birds sold for £9000 (estimate £1000-1500) at Hannam’s (23% buyer’s premium) in Selborne, Hampshire, on January 11. It came by descent from a British diplomat in Washington who had received it as a gift in 1871 while negotiating the Alabama Claims.