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There’s sad news on the Isle of Wight as the impending closure of the Isle of Wight Wax Works Museum has been announced. This attraction – along with some of its exhibits – began delighting and horrifying children and their parents in 1965, and so its demise marks a loss of part of the background to the Ranger’s life.
As well as the traditional historical tableaux, the waxworks includes a diverse range of other collections; most memorably the Chamber of Horrors, and Professor Copperthwaite’s Collection of Oddities. In this latter collection, alongside more traditional examples of the taxidermist’s art can be found some remarkable freaks and oddities, presented pretty much as one might have seen them in a nineteenth-century freak show. This maudlin-looking unicorn is one of them, offered with the advice that one could capture one only with the assistance of “a virgin, preferably both voluptuous and naked”. Taxidermy is hardly a fashionable art these days, and the bizarre exhibits here look every bit as ancient as they must be… but there’s an undefinable directness about these creepy things that no amount of photoshopping can emulate. It’ll be a shame when they are gone. There’s not much else like this any more, nor ever likely to be again. (some very slightly NSFW images follow)
There are a few freak lambs and calves, such as this ‘Monstrosity’, which could even be real. They are a gentle reminder of the agricultural nature of the Island’s past. When these freaks were first exhibited most people would have been familiar enough with lambs – today we will pay just to see any lamb at all, however many heads it has. The Chamber of Horrors, like its famous namesake at Madame Tussauds in London, is the part of the display most memorable to small boys – then as now.
The junior rangers, having had more than their fill of the tableaux of Lord Louis Mountbatten and Lady Diana, can never wait to see the scary things that lurk behind the gory warning notices. Nor are they disappointed, despite knowing exactly what is in store. The ghostly screams and wails, the darkened passages, the flickering lights – all make for a good, old fashioned scary exhibition.
And we can’t say farewell without noting the famous titillating seaside-postcard naughtiness that the wax works’ founder, Graham Osborne-Smith, was so obviously fond of. Upstairs in the old rectory is the skivvy, euphemistically described as “a Victorian scullery maid at rest in her attic room”. Hidden behind a chimney, this model, whilst cunningly arranged to reveal nothing, is inexplicably naked except for some light corsetry and a shoe. Doubtless this was the height of scandal in 1965. Even an apparently regal model of Sophie Dawes, Madame la Baronne de Feuchères, Queen of Chantily, is on closer examination unexpectedly revealing. Down in the chamber of horrors, close examination is hardly necessary. One torturer bears a grin that can only be described as a leer as he torments what appears to be a shop dummy with nipples applied.
They didn’t bother with a wax model here – just tied black ribbon around the joints. Let’s face it, you’re not expected to look at her wrists. So, it’s curtains for the wax works one last time in January 2010. I’ll miss it, and the Island will miss it too. If you’re in Brading between now and then, why not go and have one last look?