A yellow flash in the air turned out to be a canary, fluttering around Polly Morgan’s studio. Another, this one pinkish-brown, huddled at the other end of the rafter.
Morgan herself is looking over some other birds on a table, but these are her art materials, and dead. Morgan, who is in her mid-20s, is just two years into an art career and her first solo show, The Exquisite Corpse, curated by Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, is up at Trinity Church, Marylebone Road, London. But she already sells everything she can make. Some struggle to get into the art world. A few just fall into it. Morgan is one of the latter.
“I started off learning taxidermy not with any particular intention to become an artist,” she says. “But then neither did I want to be a traditional taxidermist. I didn’t really have an idea in mind about what I wanted to do with them.”
There was nothing accidental about her fixation on animals. She grew up in the Cotswolds. When she was a child her father was laid off by a company that specialised in the artificial insemination of cattle. “After, he was always trying to do something with animals. Ostrich meat would be the way to go and he would buy loads of ostriches,” she says. “And we would be saddled with them for a while. Or llamas. Or angora goats. We didn’t have any money. We had a nice house in the country and ran around after the animals all day.”
Morgan had no notion of an art career when she left school.“I knew I didn’t want to get a normal job. I did a bit of temping and that type of work, and I hated it,” she says. “I worked in a bar as a way of getting around that.” The bar was the Shoreditch Electricity Showroom on Hoxton Square, a key art world hang-out. But she was more interested in taxidermy than art. “I had always loved Victoriana. And I wasn’t able to find the kind of taxidermy displays that I wanted to see. They were all very traditional. Where they mimicked the natural habitats.”
But Morgan was aware of Walter Potter, the proto-surreal Victorian taxidermist. “His taxidermy is not good at all in terms of technique,” she says. “But he became quite legendary because he always did these kitsch, outlandish displays. He did a cat’s wedding where they are wearing gowns. And a tea party where they are all sitting around, drinking out of little china cups.”
Morgan decided to make taxidermy in a similar vein. “I decided to learn it properly,” she said. “I wanted to keep the birds or mammals looking dead, looking as they looked when they came to me. I can understand why people always want to resurrect them. But I thought there was something quite beautiful about the way they died. And it would be nice to try to preserve that. So I started practising. Then I began making these pieces.”
Morgan still didn’t see them as “art” but she did make the connection with the tradition of the “Cabinets of curiosities” or “Wunderkammer”, jumbles of the arts and sciences, real and fake, that were considered part of the art experience from the Renaissance on.
One day Wolfe Von Lenkiewicz, an artist/dealer, asked what she was up to which happened to be mounting a stuffed rat in a champagne glass. He came over, saw it and said he wanted to put it into his space at the art fair Zoo. “I said I’m not really an artist. He said it doesn’t matter. You’re making a piece of art,” she says. “And it was the first thing he sold. Before it even opened.”
That was 2005. Morgan set to work. How does she choose what animals she is going to work with?
“I work with what I get given,” she said. “They all die natural and unpreventable deaths. I don’t use anything found or killed. I have favourites. Blue tits, robins. I’m not so keen on greenfinches and sparrows. It’s partly to do with the actual skinning and mounting of them and how easy or hard it is to do. I don’t do very big animals. Nothing larger than a fox.”
Morgan has been in several group shows. Through word-of-mouth and via her website she has been selling everything she makes. Has there been any resentment at her lack of an art background? “I thought there’d be more than there is, actually,” she said. “But I knew a lot of the artists. I used to serve them their drinks. I have heard that one or two people have suggested that it’s kind of cynical on my part to suddenly become an artist. But I don’t think many people feel that way. Everyone knows me fairly well. Lots of people have seen the work and liked it. And that’s enough really.
“I’m always really, really upfront. I have never pretended to know more about art than I do. I am almost 100 per cent sure that I wouldn’t have had any of the success had I gone to art school. I probably wouldn’t have started with taxidermy. I don’t know what I would be doing. I would probably be painting.”
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