Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Charles Waterton

The Lion And The Cardinal, always a wonderful source of visual images, had this rather splendid piece on Charles Waterton on June 9th, and I have ventured to copy and comment on it, as I have several reasons to be interested in this remarkable and endearing nineteenth century naturalist and pioneer concervationist.

First of all he was from Wakefield, my home area. Secondly I might have been born in what had been his home, Walton Hall on the outskirts of the city and which was used in the years before my birth as a maternity hospital as it was I was born in another hospital on the site of the battle of Wakefield - which may, conceivably, explain in some way my late-medieval interests.

Thirdly Waterton was descended from Robert Waterton (d.1425) and his second wife, Cicely, the sister of Bishop Richard Fleming, so he ties in with my thesis, however remotely - though I doubt if he will make it to more than a footnote.

Fourthly Waterton was a Catholic of recusant stock; his son, Edmund, wrote the earliest, or one of the earliest studies of English medieval devotion to Our Lady - a piece valuable in itself and a part of that process whereby historians have helped recover the Catholic life of pre-Reformation England.

Fifthly he played, I suspect, a small part in my conversion. Sometime after I came to Oxford I came across a copy of the modern biography of Waterton, and remember sitting in Oriel MCR reading about Waterton's funeral in 1865, and being struck by the way the Mass was conceived by Waterton and his family as a Thing of itself, something that stands in its own right as the act of propitiation and salvation. Though not a new idea to me as an Anglo-Catholic, I do recall the impact the way the concept was presented had on my mind, and I suspect confirmed and encouraged all those right instincts which eventually brought me to be in the same Communion as Charles Waterton.

Chelonian Research Institute:
The Victorian period was also a time of profound and cultivated eccentricity. For example, the English explorer Charles Waterton (1782-1865), a passionate aristocratic Catholic in a Protestant-dominated society, who sported a short crewcut in a society of Victorian hirsute extravagance, had his home in Yorkshire made into a museum with such exhibits as The English Reformation Zoologically Demonstrated, in which preserved reptiles were contorted into caricatures of famous Protestants. Waterton's idiosyncrasies were so profound and far-reaching as to border on actual insanity. But his was a fine madness - a creative and extraordinarily frolicsome spirit combined with genuine originality, true religious faith, a decidedly experimental approach to problem-solving, and a great capacity for affection, sympathy and passionate love. Perhaps it all had something to do with his ancestry - his documented ancestors included seven saints (Vladimir the Great; Anne of Russia; the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb; King Stephen of Hungary; Queen Margaret of Scotland; and Mathilde of Germany, not counting Sir Thomas More, executed in 1535, who was not canonized until 1935; nor Count Humbert III of Savoy, King Ferdinand III of Castile and Louis IX of France, whose relationships with Waterton hinge upon an alleged 15th-century marriage), and four historical individuals portrayed in the plays of Shakespeare.

Certainly, it seems that only England could have produced a Waterton. The Squire, as he was always called, set up a nature reserve, mainly for waterfowl, on his estate near Wakefield, and experimented extensively with jumping foxes to determine how high the walls should be to exclude these predators (the answer was nine feet). Having fallen off a ladder while climbing a tree when he was in his seventies, he concluded with his own peculiar logic that ladders were dangerous and he should thenceforth climb trees without them. And when his doctor told him to place his injured foot under running water, Waterton, on tour in America at the time, travelled to Niagara and stuck the limb in question under the famous falls, on the theory that, if one pill is good, two will be better.

And most touching of all was his marriage. Waterton was in the habit of travelling to Demerara (now part of Guyana) every few years, and it was on one of these trips that he attended the Baptism of a beautiful baby, the daughter of an Arawak princess (and fathered by an English colleague of his by the name of Charles Edmonstone). He fell in love with the infant, checked on her growth and progress in the course of periodic subsequent trips to Demerara, and finally, when she was seventeen, he took her to England and married her. The bride, despite her extreme youth, proved to be a dignified and respected lady of the manor, but tragically she died in childbirth just one year later. Waterton was so devastated that he actually slept on the floor every night for the rest of his life, with just a thin blanket and a wooden block for a pillow. His rationale was a serious one of self-penance; he felt responsible for her death from puerpural sepsis, attributing it to bacteria from dead specimens that he handled and kept in the house, and he earnestly wanted to earn the privilege of being re-united with her in Heaven. But his public statement about his new sleeping habits was, as ever, a joke. He explained that, at least when travelling, you never knew who had been the last user of a bed that was offered. While it could conceivably have been some lovely form divine like his late wife, it is just as likely to have been some horrid alderman... a rough-skinned, pimpled victim to turtle soup and Curacao (the liqueur, not the island).

Waterton's playful side inevitably intruded into his role as Museum Director, and he was responsible for producing not only the famous gallery of distorted Protestant reptiles, but also for a weird specimen, laboriously fashioned from the backside of a hirsute howler monkey into a somewhat humanoid countenance, that he dubbed The Nondescript. But more seriously, he developed a methodology for dry preservation and mounting of vertebrates that involved complete removal of the skeleton, muscles and viscera, stiffening and preservation of the integument with corrosive sublimate, and artistic replication and coloring of features likely to prove unstable if not so treated. The specimens are still in the Wakefield Museum, marvelously intact, and bearing mute testimony to the excellence of the Walton Technique.
Sally Shelton:
He abhorred scientific nomenclature, John James Audubon (whom he called a charlatan), Protestants, Hanoverians, Hanoverian Protestants, rats (the presence of which in England he blamed on the Hanoverian Protestants), and, late in life, Charles Darwin; he loved the natural world, birds, taxidermy, and practical jokes.
More information about Waterton from the Catholic Encyclopaedia is here, and about his books and biographies of him here, and here.

Taxidermic caricature of Martin Luther

The Nondescript

John Bull and the National Debt

1 comment:

Kathy Life said...

Hello, Charles Waterton is a fascinating character and while researching him for a blog post I came upon your very interesting post about him. My husband, John Sunderland, originally mentioned Waterton in his recently published book, 'On My Way to Jorvik', which chronicles his journey from 11-year-old truant from QUEGS at the Wakelfield Museum to project designer of the original Jorvik Viking Centre. Waterton's extraordinary displays had a striking effect on his imagination. Unfortunately, he had to cut out the section about the Waterton display due to length. Nonetheless, I believe it's worth leading people to the remains of the Wakefield Museum at the Library site and this fascinating character. I have linked this page of your blog site to John's blog on his website, www.johnsunderdesign.com. Would you be interested to return the favor and link your site to his, if you feel it's appropriate? Thank you for your consideration. Kathy Kirkpatrick