Taxidermy, far from being a dying art, is having new life breathed into it by a talented band of women, as Ettie Neil-Gallacher discovers
Talented female taxidermists are breathing new life into an art form that is far from dying out, as Ettie Neil-Gallacher discovers.
For more on sporting art, Tony Ladd spent his boyhood collecting wild bird eggshells and has now forged a career producing replicas – read collecting wild bird eggshells.
Taxidermy is trendy. Dispel images of the wonky weasels and botched boar that may linger in the darkest recesses of your house, inherited from an Edwardian forebear and now relegated to being the subject of the occasional drunken witticism. Think Hoxton, Shoreditch and tattooed practitioners. Think Angelina Jolie, Dita Von Teese, Courtney Love and even Kate Moss, all of whom reputedly collect stuffed animals. Think playful parakeets fashioned into lamp stands, vengeful vermin in formaldehyde and whimsical weasels delivering a message of political dystopia in our post-truth era.
Now pop your monocle back in and relax. A little. For while it’s not all postmodern pheasants and ironic raccoons, change is afoot. Traditional practices continue alongside what seems to be known as “rogue” taxidermy. It’s no longer venerable elders peering through horn-rimmed specs at Victorian restoration work – it’s women (and predominantly young ones) leading the vanguard of its resurgence.
This isn’t an entirely new trend. Emily Mayer, the grande dame of the industry, has plied her trade for more than 30 years, collaborating with Damien Hirst along the way. But while her radical use of erosion casting renders strikingly lifelike results, such methods are often eschewed in favour of the more traditional skills employed by Kate Latimer. This Cotswolds-based taxidermist and milliner also offers courses and tuition. She sees her work as “a form of recycling”, using every part of the animal – “I can taxidermy the head of a damaged bird for a headpiece”. Her practice incorporates restoration work and commissions, largely from “people wanting to stuff things they’ve shot”.
Latimer grew up in a creative family and had collected Victorian antiques for years; she then found herself on a date at a clay-pigeon shoot seven years ago. As she got more into shooting and stalking, she saw a way to combine these with her interest in Victoriana. “My job and my hobby complement each other perfectly.” Thus she found her niche. “It all fell into place for me – though I’d never have believed it if someone had told me this is what I’d be doing for a job.”
She now has a freezer containing a two-year waiting list of animals to work on (though one of her freezers, containing mainly exotic birds, recently failed). One of her earliest commissions was a moose which she subsequently learned no other taxidermist would touch; for her trouble, she was paid the princely sum of £160 for three months’ work. Her favourite creature to work with is a hare but she generally avoids reptiles and is hugely mindful of the tight legal restrictions on certain animals and restoration items.
A day in Bourton-on-the-Water at her Aladdin’s Cave of a studio for a spot of stuffing, alongside The Field’s Deputy Editor, made me realise quite how painstaking and skilful the process of taxidermy is. As I swiftly sabotaged my magnum opus by making half-a-dozen holes in the skin during my initial incision, I realised that, dear reader, a new career does not beckon. Latimer patiently oversaw the valiant efforts that followed: after skinning, we removed the brains from our poults, popped their eyes out, washed and blow dried the skin, then preserved and stuffed the poult with wood wool and wire; the final stage was some cross-stitching that would have made my childhood handwork teacher weep. Both efforts now sit proudly in their respective loos. Latimer’s day-long courses are a must-do for anyone keen for a hands-on experience.
Latimer’s creativity obviously exceeds my own by some margin but there is much debate as to whether this is art or taxidermy. London-based Elle Kaye thinks “you can’t be one without the other”. Having resigned herself to not becoming a vet, she studied fine art & sculpture at Loughborough University and her insistence on anatomical accuracy means that “before you’re a taxidermist, you have to be a sculptor. It requires artistry, dexterity and a visual and biological understanding,” and that very often people don’t realise how long it takes to create something that will outlive its creator.
Her work comes from interior designers, the fieldsports fraternity and people who have seen her pieces on sites such as Instagram. She prefers to specialise in mammals rather than birds because her work is fuelled by an interest in anatomy: “You can’t hide anything when you’re working with mammals but you can use a bird’s plumage to hide errors.”
Having said that, she once worked on a pelican which was “weird and wonderful” in that these creatures have air pockets in their skeletons and underneath their skin to help them float; moreover, this particular one “had fish in its beak and throat pouch – which I hasten to add was fairly unpleasant”.
DEVOTED TO CONSERVATION
Kaye points out the inconsistencies of those people who query the ethics of taxidermy and yet have no idea of the provenance of their roast chicken. “People are very quick to rush to defend animals – more so than to the defence of human suffering – but neither understand nor contribute to wildlife and conservation. I feel that I’m devoting my life to the conservation and understanding of animals in a way that will hopefully educate, inspire and prolong the existence of specimens that may cease to exist.”
She thinks that, as a taxidermist, “it’s not necessary to hunt but [she] completely respects those who do and [doesn’t] begrudge them”. With clear views on ethics, “how something dies is not entirely relevant, because my job can’t begin until it’s deceased” and that by using the skin when it’s a byproduct of another industry rather than allowing it to be discarded “encourages a wider appreciation of conservation”.
This is echoed by Fiona Dean, whose work includes sculpture, prints and jewellery cast from taxidermied pieces, who adds that “even vegetarians don’t often think about what pesticides are killing key insect species to produce sunflower oil or the destruction of forests for soya”.
Like Kaye and Latimer, it was “a fusion of science and art” that led Dean to taxidermy, though this time it was biology and zoology for which Dean had a passion. This passion has seen her exhibiting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, while the rest of the time she operates from her Edinburgh studio and her online shop.
Such views on ethics are reiterated by Kim Wagner, a Swiss taxidermist who has been working here for the past nine years but is in the process of moving back. She says that while none of the animals she has used in the past have been killed in order to be taxidermied, “some of them have been killed, usually by gamekeepers who would kill them anyway, so I might as well use them. I do not have an issue with controlled and regulated hunting as long as the animals are ethically and legally killed.”
TAXIDERMY, NOT ART
In contrast to Kaye, Wagner is adamant that her work is taxidermy and not art; but like Kaye, says that her work is born out of her love of animals. “My work is merely done out of a fascination with nature and an appreciation of natural beauty and trying to preserve that. I do not create the animals – nature has done that for me – so I do not see that I add much creativity in it. You can decide how to mount it and what scenario to mount it in but I’m not sure I consider that ‘creative’. Art requires a concept, an idea, a language, a meaning, a certain something – taxidermy on its own is not art.”
Not that that detracts from “the impeccable skill that took years of hard work to perfect” that is displayed by many taxidermists. Wagner herself trained with Polly Morgan and the two of them once
collaborated on a baby giraffe. Morgan found herself working in a pub in East London in her early twenties, just as the YBAs were thriving, and says that, for her, “it was being in the right place at the right time with access to the right people”. Like Wagner, she praises the technical skill of successful taxidermists as being “extremely studied”.
THE GENDER DIVIDE
Morgan has strong views on the provenance of her subject matter and finds a tension between hunting and wanting to display the kill as a trophy afterwards. “It’s absurd to kill something and then to try and make it look alive,” she says.
But what do female taxidermists bring to their craft that male taxidermists don’t? Opinion is divided. Dean thinks such a distinction is largely spurious and “cannot detect any differences” as she has noted the “incredibly fine detail” of work by some male taxidermists. What interests her, rather, is “the character of the artist”.
Kim Wagner concurs, musing that a small animal or bird perhaps requires “a lighter touch” and “a delicacy” that some men might find difficult. However, she’s quick to point out that there are, equally, certain animals – large mammals, for example – that she “would not have the strength” to do by herself and that for all the recent female involvement, “the best taxidermists in Britain are [still] men. They demonstrate an extremely delicate eye and handiwork to mount the most exquisite little birds that I’m yet to see any young female taxidermist produce – including myself.”
Elle Kaye is more forthright and says that women “in her experience, generally pay more accurate attention to detail” and that she herself uses her “femininity to project a softness, a kindness onto [her] work”.
However, she warns that “it’s not always a good thing to be a woman in the industry because others are still getting used to the idea of it, so it’s a distraction”. Kaye says that she still encounters hostility: “On occasion, when I’ve complimented an older man on some aspect of his work, I’ve got the cold shoulder from him. Some of them are simply not prepared to discuss their work as if they want to keep their secrets.” She believes that “as the industry is so small, shouldn’t we want to build each other up, rather than isolate ourselves?”
One man who doesn’t exhibit such froideur is Edinburgh-based George Jamieson, who has taught Polly Morgan, Kim Wagner and Fiona Dean, among many others. Maybe it takes an external observer, as it were, to analyse the rise and the role of female taxidermists. He observes that “about nine out of 10 of my students are young females from the art world”. He’s been doing taxidermy for more than 50 years, so perhaps with this wealth of experience he’s best placed to judge the role of women. “Women are better at spotting social trends,” Jamieson says. They have responded to the fact that, “over the past 20 years or so, people have had less and less to do with the outdoor world. Artists pick up on changing trends and have tapped into a desire to reconnect to the real world through taxidermy.”
Kate Latimer offers individual tuition, which costs between £80 and £140 depending on the animal, as well as group courses for £65 to £125 per person. Contact her on 01608 432649 or 07886 188751; katelatimer.co.uk
Elle Kaye: www.ellekayetaxidermy.co.uk or www.queenofthejungle.co.uk
Fiona Dean: www.fionadean.co.uk
Kim Wagner: firstname.lastname@example.org
Polly Morgan: www.pollymorgan.co.uk
George Jamieson: www.scottish-taxidermy.co.uk
STUFF OF LEGEND
A female association with stuffed animals has a long history in this country as well as overseas. Indeed, the earliest stuffed bird believed to be in existence in this country belonged to a woman: Frances Teresa Stewart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox (1647-1702). Famed for her beauty and her silliness in almost equal measures, she was the model for the idealised, female Britannia that continued to appear on coinage until decimalisation in 1971. She proved impervious to the charms of Charles II, who had contemplated becoming the first monarch to divorce since Henry VIII, and who remained besotted even after smallpox had wreaked havoc with her once legendary features. The king duly dispatched her husband overseas and, in his place, Frances kept an African grey parrot as a pet for 40 years. It died soon after she did and was stuffed and mounted, and can be found in the Westminster Abbey Museum, next to her wax effigy.
One of the founders of modern taxidermy was an American woman, Martha Maxwell (1831-1881). An artist and naturalist as well, she paved the way for other seminal, male figures in the taxidermy world, such as William Temple Hornaday and Carl Akeley, using pioneering techniques in terms of preservation and setting. Using plaster moulds and iron frames under the skin, rather than simply sewing and stuffing, and creating natural habitats for displays, she laid the foundations of taxidermy as we recognise it today.