A strange humanoid creature: Charles Waterton’s ‘Nondescript’

Weird humanoid creature made by Charles Waterton.

Charles Waterton, The ‘Nondescript’, ca 1824. (Wakefield Museum)

I think that probably every person, at some point in their lives, gets the urge to make their own ridiculously interesting creature out of the shaved a** of a monkey. (Right?) Well this grim little fellow is the product of that impulse, created around 1824 by an eccentric but well-respected 19th century English naturalist, Charles Waterton (1782-1865). Waterton was a passionate environmentalist and explorer, travelling to remote parts of South America to study exotic wildlife and creating the world’s first nature reserve on his estate in West Yorkshire. His book Wanderings in South America, which told of his adventures exploring Guiana, West Indies, is even said to have inspired and influenced Charles Darwin as a schoolboy. Waterton was also an accomplished taxidermist, and invented a preservation technique which used mercury-based chemical to harden the animal skins rather than relying on traditional stuffing.

In 1824 Charles Waterton returned to England from his travels in South America with the bust of this strange humanoid creature. The curious being had woeful eyes set closely on a hairless human-like face, with a thick red mane surrounding it’s small, dark head. Waterton called it a ‘Nondescript’, due to the fact it didn’t fit into any existing taxonomic categories. Although a few sharp-eyed observers accused Waterton of presenting the scientific community with a hoax, many more believed that this monstrous creature was the real thing, no more unbelievable than the sloth or duck-billed platypus which had recently been introduced to Europe by scientists travelling in strange and exotic lands. But the ‘Nondescript’ was indeed a fake: a product of Waterton’s marvellous imagination and a demonstration of his innovative taxidermy skills, created by shaving the faces of two red howler monkeys and manipulating their wet skin together to give the hybrid a more human-like appearance.

This marvelous little creature, which can be seen today on display at the Wakefield Museum, is an interesting relic of a time where the exploration of the world offered such strange and exotic possibilities to the European imagination. But it also demonstrates the human urge to conjure the bizarre characters from our imaginations and place them in the world to be looked at and to entertain. This impulse is, perhaps, even more interesting than the Nondescript creature itself. It represents a part of a tradition that, I would argue, continues to preservere in forms like the curious creatures of Australian artist Patricia Piccinini, or even the fantastic muppets of Jim Henson. Although the historical context and intentions of Charles Waterton was different than these examples (it is said he was trying to pull a prank on a troublesome Liverpool customs official), all create weird and wonderful beings from the depths of their imaginations which work to expand the idea of what is possible in the real world.

Patricia Piccinini, "The Young Family", 2003.

Patricia Piccinini, “The Young Family”, 2003. (Image: artist website)

What do you make of this impulse to create strange and extraordinary bodies and display them in the world? Do you see connections between Waterton’s Nondescript and the creation of curious bodies in contemporary art and culture?

// Top image via Wakefield Museum; bottom image via Patricia Piccinini.

Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:

A mounted furry fish.

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8 thoughts on “A strange humanoid creature: Charles Waterton’s ‘Nondescript’

  1. Patricia Piccinini’s “The Young Family” is on display in one of my favourite art galleries in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia. Every time I visit, I consciously avoid this piece because I have found it so bizarre and difficult to view. I have recently stumbled upon your blog, and your insight into these “curious bodies” is intriguing and enlightening to say the least! Next time I visit Bendigo, I will take some time to reflect and ponder this interesting piece of art. Thanks for some fascinating reading!

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