THINKING back now, it may have been the two taxidermied swans in Liberty's Christmas window display that reignited our interest in all things dead. However, taxidermy dates back to ancient times, originally used in religious ceremonies. People believed that by preserving the bodies of animals and humans they were protecting the dead and easing the transition from one world to the next.
But isn’t all taxidermy this way? When the work is done well it is beautiful and perhaps the highest compliment to the animal (you’re perfect, don’t ever change).
However, the modern form of taxidermy was born in England. In Victorian times the demand for leather increased and tanning – the process of turning an animal’s skin into preserved leather – became common practice. It also made taxidermy possible. Scientists, or more specifically naturalists, were particularly fond of the process as they used it to preserve newly discovered species for classification purposes. James Cook and Charles Darwin were early practitioners.
Unfortunately it wasn’t until the preservative properties of arsenic were discovered that scientists were able to protect their work so few of the specimens survived. One of the oldest known – if not the oldest – surviving examples from the time is the Duchess of Richmond's African grey parrot, which died in 1702. It is still perched in Westminster Abbey today.
Around the turn of the twentieth century was when taxidermy became known as an art form. Aristocrats would flaunt their wealth by displaying mounted animals – most notably big game – in their homes. Of course, as people began to realise that killing animals for sport, endangered or otherwise, was wrong it became illegal and the black market began to thrive.
One of London’s most well known cases of illegal taxidermy surfaced around twelve years ago when Robert Sclare* of Get Stuffed in Islington was sentenced to six months in prison for housing and selling some of the world’s most endangered species, including two tiger cubs less than a week old that were allegedly to be sold for £20,000 on the black market. There have been no reported big seizures of illegal taxidermy in Britain since.
However, London’s love of taxidermy hasn’t faded. Don’t believe us? There have been mounted bear heads and fully grown tigers spotted at Dover Street Market and east London eatery Les Trois Garcons is practically a menagerie, and plopped in the middle of one of London’s hippest neighbourhoods.
According to Alexis Turner, owner of London Taxidermy, there are still quite a few collectors and there is a wave of new collectors emerging. “There has been a massive surge of interest in the last five to ten years. Being a niche market the recession hasn't made any difference and prices for good pieces are still rising,” says Turner.
London Taxidermy has been in business for twenty years and most of the clientele are films (The Wicker Tree’s, sequel to the Wicker Man, opening scene was filmed in the showroom), TV (they were featured in a recent episode of Made in Chelsea), advertising agencies, big brand retailers, fashion designers and photographers.
It seems we have overcome the outrage and disgust that once surrounded the industry as they are considered antiques and collectibles once again. Turner chalks it up to the fact that “the public have become more educated to the history of taxidermy and also the fact that it is by and large an ethical industry. There are strict legal requirements and we only deal in antique specimens or modern specimens that have died naturally or by accident. It is actually the ultimate in recycling.”
These pieces have also found their place in the contemporary art scene. London-based artist Polly Morgan, whose patrons include Kate Moss and Courtney Love, is probably the best example. Her work is haunting and, if nothing else, of the moment. She sits comfortably alongside Damien Hirst’s sharks and relative newcomer Alex Dellal with her macabre imagery and shocking yet beautiful creations. Hers is the type of art that you gasp in horror at while stepping closer to get a better look.
But isn’t all taxidermy this way? When the work is done well it is beautiful and perhaps the highest compliment to the animal (you’re perfect, don’t ever change). Or maybe they are just easier to deal with on a film set. Either way, death certainly becomes them.
*An internet search of this case returns the name Robert Sclare, however, when we emailed Get Stuffed for comment the response was “Hello, unfortunately we cannot be of assistance, as this is not of interest to us. Regards Robert Sinclair, Get Stuffed”. Hmm.
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