Sinclair Clark

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Date of Birth: January 31, 1902
Place of Birth: Barbados, West Indies
Date of Death: May 14, 1999
Place of Death: Bronx, New York

Sinclair Nathaniel Clark was a legendary taxidermy tanner, known throughout that industry for his expertise in tanning animal skins to give them the suppleness that taxidermists require to create lifelike, long-lasting displays. Because tanning is a behind-the-scenes operation of taxidermy, tanners are seldom known outside the industry. Clark’s work is on view in museums all over the world; his most famous work is “Henry,” the African Bush elephant which has been displayed in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. since 1959. He also tanned the skin of the famous racehorse Phar Lap, which has been on permanent display in the Museums Victoria in Melbourne, Australia since January 1933.

Sinclair Clark inspecting his taxidermy tanning work on “Henry”, the African elephant in the rotunda of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in 1959.

Some years after his 1924 emigration from Barbados to the United States through New York City’s Ellis Island, Sinclair Clark learned tanning from taxidermist James L. Clark (no relation)–who himself had learned from Carl Akeley, considered to be the “father of modern taxidermy.” Akeley, whom Sinclair Clark had met his very first week of work at James L. Clark’s taxidermy studio, had recently proposed that the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) build a Hall of African Mammals, and James Clark had begun working with Akeley on that project. As a result, it was Sinclair Clark who tanned the skins of the majority of the large mammals exhibited in the over 29 habitat dioramas of that hall, as well as of the original four of the herd of eight African elephants that comprise the hall’s main exhibit.

Akeley requested that Sinclair Clark accompany him on his 1926 African safari, but Sinclair’s mother forbade it. It turned out to be Akeley’s last safari; during the trip, he became ill and died in the Belgian Congo. In 1936, his proposed Hall of African Mammals opened in the American Museum of Natural History and was named The Akeley Hall of African Mammals in his honor.

Sinclair Clark at work as the tannery manager of Jonas Bros. Taxidermy Studio, Mount Vernon, New York in 1980.

An independent contractor, during his career Sinclair Clark worked with noted taxidermists, including Louis Paul Jonas of the world-famous Jonas Bros. Taxidermy Studio, and at the American Museum of Natural History, where his tanning methods became the standard for all diorama animal exhibits. Clark later set up tanneries in other locations, but maintained his relationship with the Museum tannery over a long period of time.

Throughout his career, Sinclair Clark mentored other taxidermists and helped them set up their studios.

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On July 24, 2021, Sinclair Clark was officially inducted into the Taxidermy Hall of Fame by THOF Chairman Larry Blomquist of Louisiana, during the 2021 National Taxidermists Association’s awards banquet. Diane Patrick, Sinclair Clark’s granddaughter, requested that Sinclair’s acceptance speech be made by his longtime friend and taxidermy historian, John Janelli of New Jersey. John provided the participants at the banquet with an entertaining and informative speech, the video of which is included below.

A text of John Janelli’s tribute to his friend, Sinclair Clark, is reprinted below.

John Janelli’s tribute to Sinclair Clark

Good evening. My name is John Janelli…but not tonight. Tonight it’s Sinclair’s J.J. And I’m here with the full endorsement of The Institute For Natural History Arts Inc., and the appreciative cooperation of my second home, the American Museum of Natural History for my dear friend Sinclair Clark. Our collective purpose is to celebrate the legacy of Sinclair as we come together to accept and acclaim his induction into the Taxidermy Hall of Fame. He will now be among five other previous inductees of the American Museum and the very first ever African American to be given the esteem of such long overdue recognition.   

For the record, my nick name, Sinclair’s JJ was given to me more than forty years ago. Sinclair and I were at a national competition in Colorado where I got to meet and become great friends with such awesome luminaries as Bill Huffman, Joe Kish, Harry Paulson, Larry McKenzie and Joe Jonas, both Senior and Junior. It was Joe Sr. who personally knew Sinclair from from his early days at the Yonkers NY studios when they were at the old Kimball theater on Yonkers Ave. 

Hobnobbing through the vending area, Sinclair introduced me to more people than I can introduce anyone to these days. It was there that Mr. Jonas asked Sinclair if he would please come to Colorado Fur Dressing tannery, then owned by Jonas Bros. in Denver, to help finetune the rotary knives there, all 10 of them. So the next day we got into the car with a driver sent by Mr. Jonas and, through Sinclair’s master’s touch, aligned the shaving machines, kicker and turner all the in the same day. I didn’t know it then, but Mr. Jonas met privately with Sinclair in the office, and then when we got back into the car for our  return trip back to the hotel, Sinclair told me to get ready for dinner because Mr. Jonas invited us out that night. Respectfully I declined because Mr. Jonas did not invite me as he had done with Sinclair. He tried to assure me the invitation was for both us but still, I felt more comfortable being at the show because I wanted to meet up with the legendary fish taxidermist, Jim Hall.

Sinclair freshened up and asked me one more time if I had changed my mind, and I just told him to have a great time with his friends and he stepped out. 

About 15 minutes later, I heard a sharp knock on the door.  Thinking it was a taxidermist I knew, I was shocked when before me, dressed like a Lord and Taylor executive, was Mr. Joe Jonas Senior!  There I was in cutoff shorts, tank top and sandals when Mr. Jonas asked, with all the dignity of a foreign diplomat, “Excuse me young man, but are you Sinclair’s J.J.?” I never thought of myself quite like that but I knew what he meant and so I responded, “Yes sir Mr. Jonas, I am,”to which he replied the magical words, “Well come on then, get dressed, I just invited you for dinner with all of us!” Sinclair was in the back seat and all he whimsically said was; “JJ, I told you so.” 

Joe Jonas and Sinclair Clark attending an early National Taxidermists Association convention.

To hear the stories go back and forth from Sinclair to the Jonas clan was simply amazing. All I can do was think that both these men knew Carl Akeley, and that Sinclair really did work for Carl Akeley. This was before the books were written, before the awards were established, and paper manikins still held their own in an ever changing industry. Yet Sinclair remained the same. His work ethic would make the most accomplished Union fur dresser today seem like a Vaudeville act in comparison. Sinclair not only loved the work he innovated, he loved the very people he worked with. How can I explain to a novice what a tanner is responsible for? How can anyone truly understand the enormous risk it takes when preparing the skins and hides from some of the rarest species that could be had only by educational institutions such as our national museums, to collect, exhibit and store for future generations.  To Sinclair, these were not lifeless, organic materials, not in the least.  He knew they were collected so that the public could be educated, and not just behind closed doors either.  If perfect taxidermy was expected, tanning methods had to be perfected first, and that’s what Sinclair did best.  He was so much a part of the great Renaissance of American taxidermy that it was almost as if he were the sole color of the artist’s palate that every other color was derived from.  How many times was something brought to Sinclair’s that needed to be shaved just a little bit thinner, soaked a little while longer or beamed out just a tad harder to make a skin seem as if it “…growed on to the manikin.” That’s what was said about Sinclair’s ability by those who knew him best, the very taxidermists of that bygone era that are never to return again.

Sinclair thought the world of teaching others how to utilize his knowledge and to make it work for them.  He knew every part of any machine in the tanneries he worked at.  He knew the businesses who sold them and the machinists who made them, per his direction.  Asking him for a tanning formula was like asking my mother for her gravy recipe.  They both knew how to do it, but they did it from their hearts and not their minds.  Oh to hear him say one more time, “JJ, put 200 lbs of that in this tank and heat it up till you can’t keep your hand in it.”  And when it was all concocted and needed testing, he simply ran his powerful huge silk smooth hands a time or two in a few circles, shook off the excess and ran his fingers across his tongue, no differently than a wine connoisseur would taste his vintage port right out of its vat.  I’d be waiting like an over anxious dog about to retrieve a bird for his master.  “Put in one more pail JJ and that’ll do it.” and then he was back on the round knife again gently but deliberately guiding his hands from east to west and feeling the thickness of the skin as if he had built in censors wired to his mind.  He was quoted as saying once that a tanner needed a strong back and weak mind to be good at it.  No way, not Sinclair, not at all.  True, his back was as strong as a marble pillar in a hurricane.  But his mind was such that he knew exactly what he needed to do, and when and how all at the same time.  It was almost as if he had an intimate relationship with every tool, machine and animal skin that he had under his control. 

Sinclair received his early training from Oskar Granstedt, the tanner on location at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. It was from Mr. Granstedt that Sinclair began his lifelong use of the currier knife, which he mastered so well.  Later, he trained and worked with AMNH tanner Bill Coul, even earlier with Dominick Villa Jr. at the James L. Clark Studios in the Bronx.  About that same time, Sinclair did the tanning of the entire (Kermit and Ted Jr.) Roosevelt Asian Expedition that supplied enough specimens for the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum in NY.

It was after the death of John Jonas in 1948 that Sinclair went to work for the new owner of the NY based Jonas Bros., then owned by Steve Horn. Weekends found Sinclair on trains and planes to Harper Bros. Tannery in Virginia and Clearfield Taxidermy and Tannery in Pennsylvania, or wherever else he was called into work. It seemed as if Sinclair’s mission on earth was to develop a tan that first insured permanence of the completed mount and longer shelf life of the tanned skin itself, which eliminated memory loss years before it was re-hydrated.  He developed soaking tanks to accommodate any size skin from antelope to zebra without using nails to rust or any kind of glue, resin or coating for fear of staining the contents to be tanned.  In fact, I recall how Sinclair would talk about the most difficult skins he ever tanned in his life, the Asiatic Javan and Sumatran rhinos, both by hand.  He reminisced how Carl Akeley had to force him to take longer breaks so as not to over stress himself.  Upon noting his work ethic, Akeley practically begged Sinclair to accompany his hand picked museum crew for what would be Akeley’s last adventure in Africa, from which he never returned. Instead Sinclair, strictly adhering to Akeley’s instructions with regard to his own single ventral cut skins, worked side by side with Lou Jonas in tanning and mounting the collection for the South Asian Hall of Mammals. Together with Louie, they formulated the most incredible foolproof tanning formulas for treating the large pachyderms. Anyone with any experience will tell you that elephant skin does not stretch at all but needs to be shaved and worked by hand into uniform thickness before it is mounted. Louie wrote that Sinclair reduced those huge skins into a wet blanket state that was literally pinned inside to the mold to hold fast the details in the skin itself rather than the conventional exterior surfacing carding and pinning. Today, the two Asian elephants stand as testament to all that Sinclair lived for.  

He never asked for nor received any credit, not even in the footnotes of those he worked with.  He freely shared with anyone whatever they needed to know about tanning.  He’d travel anywhere to work 12 hour days, or longer if necessary, and all for a paltry paycheck, of which most gave him more than he asked for.  To be sure, if anything could be said of Sinclair Clark, it would be that he was a true master of his field  who was brave enough never to change a thing he did for the quality he demanded of himself.

It is on behalf of Sinclair’s family, friends, colleagues and all of you who are the future masters to come of a long line of wildlife artists, that I sincerely wish to thank the staff and officers of the Taxidermy Hall of Fame who made the induction of Sinclair Clark the reality that it is now.  If Sinclair was right there among you now at this very moment, I would stare into his tearing watery eyes and simply say; 

 “Sinclair, I told you so!”

  Sinclair’s J.J., now and always.