Wildlife a la carte

When most people think of Paris shops, images of high fashion boutiques and gourmet groceries spring to mind. But Paris has also been the home of Deyrolle, a great taxidermy shop, since 1831 – a shop that, over the years, has not only attracted fervent collectors of natural history specimens but also famous writers, painters, and philosophers as well as sportsmen, scientists, academics, and tourists. Its publications became a mainstay of the French school system and its color prints are highly collectible today.

According to enthusiast and photographer Al Teich, “It’s really a museum masquerading as a store.” Deyrolle has been featured on Globe Trekker, the PBS travel series, and cited as a favorite in Adam Gopnik’s recent book about his young family’s expat years, Paris To The Moon.

On Feb. 1, 2008, Deyrolle’s building caught fire, destroying its entomology department but sparing its vast and humorously displayed taxidermy collection.

The store’s founder, Jean Baptiste Deyrolle, was joined in business by his son, Achille, early on. Both were passionately interested in insects but soon realized that selling hunting equipment and providing taxidermy services helped the bottom line.

It was the perfect moment for such a shop to flourish. As more people settled in cities, the now-distant countryside and its creatures became exotic. And new modes of transport brought examples of the truly exotic back to Europe – in such numbers that they were affordable even to the growing middle class.

Grandson Emile took over Deyrolle in 1866 and, in 1888, moved the firm to its current address, a mansion that was once owned by the son of Louis XIV’s banker, Samuel Bernard. Emile also founded the publishing side of Deyrolle, beginning with a series of colored studies, Musee Scolaire Deyrolle (Deyrolle’s Scholarly Museum).

Aimed at the educational market, for primary and secondary schools as well as universities, new print editions appeared annually. By the 1870s, the French school system became Deyrolle’s biggest customer, although prints were widely exported to Spain, Portugal, and Algeria as well. Some say that Deyrolle’s reputation rests on its antique publications – even or especially when they’re used for decoration – rather than on the Paris shop!

Not content with prints, Deyrolle eventually supplied France’s schools and colleges with textbooks, furniture, and scientific equipment, too. In fact, much of Deyrolle’s stock of minerals, shells, insects and butterflies, fossils, microscopic slides and preservation supplies is still purchased by universities. But naturalists and collectors form a substantial part of the customer base. When it came to taxidermy, Deyrolle’s reputation for turning hunters’ “trophies” into high quality, accurate mounts soon attracted scientists and scholars.

The beauty and charm of these objects soon lured artists and intellectuals. Some came to admire, others to gain inspiration, still others to learn about zoology – or just out of curiosity. This non-scientific crowd included painters like Bernard Buffet, Salvador Dali, and Andre Breton; writers like Louise de Vilmorin; philosophers like Theodore Monod.

Much of the mounted objects’ charm is in their arrangement, full of that sophisticated humor for which the French have always been known – especially in shop display. The ground floor’s two stuffed gazelles, standing upright and dressed in the sports clothes Deyrolle sells, project a runway model aura.

Upstairs a mounted horse sticks his head through an oval wall opening (customers may view his hind if they move “next door”). Moose gather among the filing cabinets or lie down between ladders. Two rabbits, one assuming a chocolate bunny stance, flank a nest of Easter eggs.

Two llamas appear to be gazing out of Deyrolle’s French windows. Another, resting before some specimen drawers, fixes its gaze on passing customers. A press photo, taken at the time of the fire, shows a llama and moose by an open window, seemingly breathing in smokeless air. Yet seen on the street level, Deyrolle looks like a typical elegant Parisian boutique.

For the squeamish, Deyrolle assures that most of its taxidermy today has died of natural causes, not from the gunshots of sportsmen. These include the many pets that grieving owners have brought in to preserve and forgot to pick up, resulting in a huge backlog of unretrieved cats, dogs, and birds.

But current Deyrolle owner Louis Albert de Broglie has found an alternative use for his animal inventory – he rents it out as props for magazine and advertising photo shoots.

Deyrolle is located at 46 rue du Bac, just off the Boulevard Saint Germain and near the rue du Bac Metro (subway) station. If you’re Britain-bound and want to see lots of historical taxidermy, hop a commuter train from London to the Horniman Museum, in a nearby suburb. Or combine education with a day at the shore: Brighton’s Booth Museum is totally devoted to stuffed things. At home, New York’s American Museum of Natural History remains the Big Daddy of wildlife mounts.

All photos are courtesy of Al Teich. To see more of his Deyrolle pictures, visit www.pbase.com/al309/paris1.

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