Caroline Bishop discovers a strange amphibian display in a sleepy Swiss town
First I pass a cafe called the Frog & Roses, then I see the giant decorative frogs strung on wires across the streets, their bright colours and comical expressions anachronistic amid the quaint medieval buildings and cobbled streets. I’m definitely in the right place.
Estavayer-le-Lac, in western Switzerland, is known for several things: its 14th-century castle, its beautiful location on Lake Neuchâtel — and its rather unusual museum.
Opened in 1927, it’s technically the town’s history museum, but became known as the Musée des Grenouilles (Frog Museum), thanks to its most bizarre exhibit — a collection of 108 stuffed frogs dating from the mid-19th century, arranged in scenes from everyday life at the time. Now restored, these quirky taxidermy tableaux depict frogs doing military exercises, enjoying a banquet, playing cards, in the schoolroom and, in one particularly odd scene, riding a stuffed squirrel.
The obvious question is: why? And that’s something the curator of the museum, Ingrid Butty, can’t quite explain. Nobody knows for sure who undertook the gruesome task of catching and killing the frogs, pulling their innards out through their mouths, filling their empty corpses with sand and inserting wires into their tiny limbs to position them as desired (Butty knows this was the method, she tells me, because she took the unfortunate amphibians to a local hospital to be X-rayed). However, it’s generally considered to be the work of François Perrier, a soldier from a well-to-do family in Estavayer who served as a Swiss Guard at the Vatican. On his return in 1848, so the story goes, he took up the hobby of taxidermy, using the frog — a symbol of greed — to satirise the bourgeois society of the time.
Several clues point to Perrier’s involvement, says Butty. The taxidermist was clearly a local — a scene set in a lawyer’s office shows a frog writing something that mentions Estavayer by name. The number of military scenes indicates their creator knew that life. Plus the author is obviously familiar with the domestic habits of the era. In one tableau a froggy family is sitting down to dinner (spaghetti — something Perrier would have eaten in Rome) and the children sit separately, as was common at the time.
What’s clear is that whoever created these scenes had plenty of time on his hands, because they are intricately detailed. A barbershop scene includes a tiny razor, brush and scissors. In another, teeny playing cards are painted in minute detail, while the frogs sit on carved wooden chairs that are miniatures of designs common at the time. The characters are wonderfully animated, too: the sheer glee on the face of the frog holding the winning hand of cards; the drunken hilarity in the expressions of those sitting around a long banqueting table in a particularly debauched scene.
It’s surreal and fascinating — and the very last thing you expect to find in a rather sleepy town in rural Switzerland.