Spirit of the Woods

AFTER SPENDING several hours drawing the Nondescript in Wakefield Museum today, I feel that I’ve got more questions about it – or him – than I had before I started.

The naturalist Charles Waterton (1782-1865), who created this missing link to demonstrate his innovative method of taxidermy, wrote that the Nondescript or Itouli ‘has a placidity of countenance which shows that things went well for him in life’ but I feel that the creature is wistful rather than self-satisfied. There’s a suggestion that this zoological hoax may have been intended as a satirical portrait of the customs officer who had the temerity to charge import duty on a collection of tropical bird skins that Waterton was bringing into the country to display in his museum at Walton Hall near Wakefield. For me it goes a bit deeper than Spitting Image style satire; there’s a Sphinx-like enigma about him.

You might assume that as an ape-man, the Nondescript is Waterton’s riposte to Darwin’s theories on our origins but it dates from 1824/25, 35 years before the publication of The Origin of Species.

Waterton’s starting point for this creation was the skin of a Red Howler monkey which he collected on the last of his four Wanderings in South America in 1824.

The Nondescript is often seen as a joke that went wrong but I see him as a forerunner of characters (and hoaxes) such as King Kong, Piltdown Man and the Psammead in E Nesbit’s Five Children and It.

The Nondescript and the rest of the Waterton collection are currently not on public display because the Museum is in the process of moving to new premises in Wakefield One.

 

2 Replies to “Spirit of the Woods”

  1. From what I have read of Waterton he had an eccentric personality in the best aristocratic tradition. He appears to have had a bizarre sense of humour and I am sure the Nondescript was a deliberate attempt to poke fun at some person or institution. I believe the Nondescript was constructed from the “hindquarters” of a monkey, surely Waterton chose this part of the monkey anatomy deliberately. Unfortunately most of Waterton’s journals have been lost so we will probably never know the true story behind the Nondescript.

    1. Yes, in his biography Brian Eddington accepts that Waterton used the rump of the Howler monkey but he doesn’t give any reference for the statement. It would be interesting to get the opinion of a primatologist on the origin of the skin. I had the opportunity to take a close look at it and details like the eyelids looked to me as if they were part of the original skin, rather than stuck on later, but I know Waterton was skilled at combining several skins into one specimen if he had to.

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