IN MAY 1925, the Fijian government contracted the Australian Museum in Sydney to prepare a series of fish specimens. These would be for display at the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition in Dunedin, NZ, which was to open in November that year.
In mid-October, four fish entombed in blocks of ice arrived in Sydney aboard the SS Sierra. The largest, a kind of fish known in Fiji as koakoa and in Australia as a Queensland groper (Epinephelus laneceolatus), weighed in at nearly 160kg and measured 2m from snout to tail.
Before the process of taxidermy could begin, the colours and other characteristics of the fish had to be carefully recorded so they could be faithfully rendered once the creatures were stuffed and mounted on stands.
Ethel King was a talented artist and scientific illustrator who worked for the museum in the 1920s and ’30s. She had trained under the famous Australian artist Julian Ashton, and she specialised in fish, snakes and, occasionally, botanical subjects – most notably providing the 137 colour plates for J.R. Kinghorn’s landmark book Snakes of Australia, in 1929.
Miss King made detailed pencil and watercolour sketches of the four specimens after they had thawed. The fish were then skinned and the skins immersed in spirits to preserve and prepare them for the next stage. Because there was no container large enough for the monster fish’s skin, the museum’s ever-resourceful technicians constructed a suitably sized glass tank.
In the meantime, Miss King became ill and, after surgery, was sent away to her parents’ home in Lismore, NSW. The museum chiefs, ever anxious to meet their commitments, tried in vain to find a suitably skilled replacement artist. Over the next few months, taxidermists, led by H.S. Grant and assisted by J.H. Wright and W. Barnes, prepared the groper for exhibition. After pondering the challenges of tackling such a large fish, Grant employed a process usually reserved for large mammals.
Using Miss King’s drawings and measurements as reference, a frame was fashioned from redwood and covered with wire gauze. A thin coat of papier-mâché was added on top. Once a coating of shellac was applied to the whole, the surface was ready to take the preserved fish skin. The fit was perfect. King was then coaxed from her country retreat back to Sydney to paint the groper’s true colours back onto the giant replica, resulting in “an excellent example of modern taxidermy”, according to the Australian Museum Magazine of the day.
The four fish finally arrived in NZ on 1 March 1926 and were exhibited during the last two months of the fair. By the time it closed on 1 May 1926, the exhibition had attracted 3.2 million visitors – more than double NZ’s total population at the time.
This arcticle was originally published in the Sep-Oct 2015 issue of Australian Geographic (#128).