Death as decor… the art of taxidermy

    5 December 2015

    Taxidermy is becoming a cliché. Hang a stag’s head on your wall and you’re a toff; put a pair of spectacles on its nose and you’re a hipster. So how can those of us who still appreciate a stuffed animal display one without making our guests roll their eyes?

    Taxidermy’s recent rise in popularity has seen a dip in standards and you need to do your research if you want to end up with something durable, lifelike and legal. A lot of new practitioners are untalented, stitching a poorly tanned skin over a badly assembled form. Good taxidermy is the result of skilled, hard work, and it shouldn’t come cheap. A taxidermist will have been practising for at least five years before they produce anything worth collecting. Customers need to understand the legal framework, and should be wary of anyone whose media outweighs their portfolio. The finest taxidermists are not well known. Kim Wagner, Carl Church and George Jamieson all work to commission in the UK and you can be confident that their animals have been legally acquired and mounted to a high standard.

    In the olden days, taxidermists were employed to educate us in natural history. But just as photography threatened the livelihood of many a portrait painter, so zoos, film and a growing squeamishness about trophy hunting meant the decline of the taxidermist’s trade.

    Now, the art is evolving. When I began practising taxidermy 11 years ago, I was always being warned that it was a dying art (no joke). But a new inventiveness has been ushered in, with less emphasis on realism. The artist Thomas Grunfeld created a series of sculptures titled ‘Misfits’, where he created surprising hybrids, combining a peacock and a kangaroo, and a cow and an ostrich.

    Recently, I have found that snakes’ bodies can be manipulated into abstract forms that, when mounted on blocks of marble, look like modernist sculptures. There is no reason why taxidermy cannot have its place in a more minimalist aesthetic. An un-adorned beast against white walls and concrete floor has a stronger impact than a group of animals against the more customary Victorian-inspired backdrop of velvet curtains and dark wood. Alexis Turner, author of Taxidermy (Thames and Hudson) and founder of London Taxidermy, is emphatic that less is more. ‘A good piece that is given space is far more effective and becomes more of a work of art.’ You can draw attention to neglected parts of a room with thoughtfully placed taxidermy; a lone blackbird perched high in a corner, for instance. I recently made for a client a baby giraffe, arranged to be seated upside-down on the ceiling of a sitting room. This playful inversion drew attention to the impressive scale of the room.

    Some Sad Story by Polly Morgan

    Some Sad Story by Polly Morgan

    Many assume that for taxidermy to endure, it must be kept under glass, where it can lose its immediacy and evoke antique shops or stately homes. In any case, it doesn’t necessarily mean the object is protected, as moths can crawl beneath glass domes and can strip a mount down to its skin if not stopped. Carpet beetles are another problem. Pests thrive in undisturbed environments, so it is best to keep taxidermy where people live, check it regularly for the sand-like hatched egg casings, and at the first sign of damage, contact Thermo Lignum, who perform a heat treatment that kills the eggs.

    The most robust taxidermy is from the Victorian era, when arsenic was used as a preservative, but its tendency to kill off taxidermists as well as pests meant that it was replaced with other compounds, such as borax, that are still in use. One man with an extraordinary collection and eye for the Victorian is Errol Fuller (his illustrated book Voodoo Lounge is essential for anyone starting a collection). Fuller curates a yearly auction at Summer’s Place auction house where last year he sold a mounted bird of paradise, in full display, for just £650.

    If you don’t trust your own instincts, you can always ask Emma Hawkins. She started collecting at 17, opened her first shop 22 years ago, and now sells exclusively through Dover Street Market in Mayfair. Almost all her stock is Victorian (or earlier), and you can commission her to source items for particular places.

    For an old-school taxidermy experience you can’t beat a trip to John Burton of Natural Craft Taxidermy in Ebrington, Glos. You won’t find him online and you will have to pay for your visit (by appointment only). It’s worth it — he’s charming and inventive, with 43 years’ experience of mounting, collecting and dealing. Burton’s own collection is more than decor; his favourite pieces are like pets, and he says that if he had to sell them off, ‘I might as well just take a shotgun to my own head.’