Human fascination with taxidermy is nothing new. The Victorians, lovers of the extraordinary, adored it, seeing it as a means of learning about new and exotic species, and our natural history museums are full of carefully preserved specimens. Now taxidermy is back in vogue and finding its way into our houses – and we’re not just talking stuffed pheasants and dusty stag’s heads.
Alexis Turner, owner of London Taxidermy, deals in and loans antique and modern taxidermy. He has supplied animals for films – stags for Sherlock Holmes, owls for the Harry Potter movies – but a large part of his business comes from private and celebrity clients, in search of “a talking point for when people come round”. Customers include Jonathan Ross, who bought his wife’s Christmas present from Turner last year, and the illusionist, Derren Brown, who, Turner says, goes for “unusual things”, including a set of toads playing cards and a two-headed calf.
Turner started dealing in taxidermy in the early 1990s, but says that it is only in recent years that interest has gained momentum: “Taxidermy had a long period out of fashion. After the second world war it went into massive decline for about 30 years.” During this time, many big collections of taxidermy were broken up and sold. Many English private schools sold their educational collections or simply gave the animals to the pupils. Turner says that a stuffed giraffe graced his dormitory at Stonyhurst school in Lancashire. “I think a lot of schools regret getting rid of their collections. Now boys don’t need to go around looking at a stuffed goose, they can look it up on Google, but it’s not quite the same.”
The growth of interest in taxidermy has no doubt been helped by high-profile artists such as Damien Hirst and Polly Morgan, both of whom use taxidermy in their work.
Morgan, who whose pieces include “Receiver”, a telephone handset with a clutch of quail chicks peeping out of the earpiece, puts taxidermy’s rise in popularity down to two factors: “I think it has been destigmatised because there is more information about it out there and people realise that the vast majority of taxidermy isn’t killed for the purpose,” she says. “The other thing is that fashions in homes and interior design and clothes are cyclical and go from one extreme to another.”
Morgan, whose clients include Kate Moss and Banksy, believes the taste for taxidermy may be more of a reaction against the minimalist aesthetic of previous decades. “In the 1990s everyone was into minimalism, hiding everything behind cupboards and trying to make things look as bare as possible, and I think this is the antithesis of it – bringing the outdoors in.”
Today’s collectors are interested, not just in modern taxidermy but also in Victorian examples, especially the kitsch and the curious. There is widespread interest in anthropomorphic dioramas such as those created by Walter Potter, a village taxidermist, who opened a museum in Bramber, Sussex in the late 19th century. The museum was a popular tourist attraction, famed for its tableaux scenes such as a tea party of kittens. When the Potter collection was sold at auction by Bonhams in 2003, a “Kittens’ Wedding” tableau sold for £21,150 and the “Rabbits’ Village School”, showing 48 rabbits dressed as children and writing on slates, fetched £15,275. Purchasers included Hirst and the artist Peter Blake, whose collection was shown at the Museum of Everything in London’s Primrose Hill in December last year.
Dioramas such as Potter’s received criticism from the public for being cruel, and the museum had to display a notice stating that the animals had not been killed for the purpose.
“Maybe in the 1980s people thought taxidermy was something unethical but it is not, especially nowadays,” says Turner. “You can’t go around shooting anything that you want just because you want to have it in a case stuffed.”
Today, modern taxidermists are bound by laws and any animal stuffed after 1947 requires paperwork documenting its cause of death. Even then, taxidermists can only stuff animals that have died of natural causes or as the result of an accident.
Turner says that he thinks the public perception of taxidermy has changed for the better: “People such as Polly Morgan and Damien Hirst have helped because they have brought it into the public arena and they have also have emphasised that there is nothing wrong with it. The animal has died naturally or by accident and it is just recycling and reusing it and there is nothing disrespectful about that.”
However, even when the legalities have been complied with, taxidermy still divides opinion. Collector Ben Hard owns hundreds of pieces of taxidermy, including about 30 Walter Potter items, all of which are displayed at his home in north Cornwall. “Most people like it but then you also get people who really don’t, and they let you know. Some people aren’t really very open-minded and it can be frustrating but then everyone is different.”
Hard has been collecting for the last 10 years, ever since he came across an old antelope’s head in a second-hand shop. “I got a kick out of that, and it escalated from there. I like the history,” says Hard. “It’s got that old English charm about it.” He shows no signs of slowing down his collection which has already taken over three rooms in his house: “I’m always on the lookout for something a bit more unusual, a bit stranger than what I’ve got. You never know what is around the corner.”
Whether it is a beetle, a bird or a bear, a piece of taxidermy is more likely to generate excitement at a dinner party than new curtains. “I think natural history in some form, be it fossilised or stuffed or skeletal, is so interesting to see and it is a great talking point,” says Turner. “Most people’s houses are so bland and the interiors are predictable. As soon as you put natural history into it, it adds soul.”
From an antique polar bear to rat-skin rugs
For those who want to purchase their own pieces of taxidermy, prices can range dramatically.
At the top end of the market, an antique polar bear from one of the oldest and most famous taxidermy houses, Deyrolle, situated on Rue du Bac in Paris, costs €40,000.
The shop is worth a visit if only to peruse the beautiful showroom filled with drawers of butterflies and insects as well as enormous animals.
Artist Polly Morgan has sold pieces for £85,000, but she also produces several of her works in editions, some of which cost less than £1,000.
Dealers such as Alexis Turner at London Taxidermy can source particular animals or highly collectable pieces for purchasers.
And The Little Shop of Horrors, in Bethnal Green, east London, sells a large selection of taxidermy – from flying cats to stuffed fish to pairs of rather enticing stuffed ducklings, as well as other unsavoury delights, including pickled foetuses, human skulls and rat-skin rugs.
Another good place to source taxidermy is Lassco, the salvage specialists. They currently have a wild boar on sale for £3,450. VM