Sculptor, engineer, artist, naturalist – Colin Dunton is all of these things, but what he does for a living is taxidermy. His extraordinary lot, which might be a store-room in the Natural History Museum, or a loading bay in Africa in the days of empire, stands in an unprepossessing industrial estate near Marlborough.
Look in from outside, and three buffalo catch the eye first, but even they are almost lost in a sea of other game, harvested from across continents and destined to herd in the homes of his sporting clients. Shoulder mounts, full-body mounts, skins, skulls and horns jostle for space. Glass eyes turn this way and that. It is an Aladdin’s cave for anyone interested in these animals, not least because the Aladdin in question is in residence.
When he was 13, Dunton lived near the Rothschild Museum (now the Natural History Museum at Tring), in the Chilterns, and says it “has a lot to answer for”. He was “obsessed with the place, so much so that I can’t go back now, with the changes they’ve made”. He regrets the changing of its name when, after all, “he [Rothschild] collected everything”. Next, the school library’s book on starting a museum went out on long-term loan and Dunton “learned some of the mechanics of it”. Squirrels that fell to his .22 air rifle became early experiments.
“Given another bang at life, I would love to have been a collector,” he admits, “to collect for a museum or something, not for myself.” His eyes sparkle at the thought of “Robert Roc collecting for the American museums at the turn of the century – fantastic adventures they had”. Old egg, butterfly and bird collections are “fantastic, but they’re taken off public view, so we’re not encouraged, which is a shame,” he says. He has followed David Attenborough since Zoo Quest. “I remember when I was a little lad seeing him catching a Komodo dragon. They made a giant cage trap; I remember it clear as a bell on the little black-and-white set.”
His clients, too, seem to have been bitten by the collecting bug. One has sent Dunton four of the five kinds of snow sheep and, though they seem small fry beside the surrounding big game from Africa, he is particularly fond of them. It’s impossible to resist stroking them, and their beautiful, luxuriant coats cover your hand. The thickness also covers the taxidermist’s stitching – not that Dunton’s work seems to need the cosmetic help.
After the museum and boyhood experiments, Dunton made sure he worked for the very best in the business, Rowland Ward. The company was “brilliant in the Thirties and Forties”, he tells me, and its work “has a sense of design – less is more… Some of my bird work is quite similar to stuff they used to do.” This is certainly borne out by the premium Ward’s pieces command when they come to auction even today, but Dunton thinks the company had “lost its edge” by his time, and the job meant spending the working week in London, which he loathed. “I was there for one reason only, to learn as much as I could from the people working there; it taught me a hell of a lot.” Dunton seems to have found his own way, however. “You wouldn’t recognise the way I do things now from the way Ward’s did it,” he says, and one can only believe him as he talks about developing techniques and the variety of work he has done.
Dunton left Rowland Ward in 1975. In 1976, trophy-hunting was banned in Kenya, which had provided the vast majority of its work; the company was holed below the water line. Dunton’s work now comes from across the globe, mainly the USA, Europe and the hunting countries of Africa. For many, the lure of a proper safari is still as potent today as it was at the start of the 20th century, and Dunton says, “A Tanzanian safari may produce 15 or 16 mounts, which keep me going for a long time.”
The years of experience have thrown up plenty of challenges, and Dunton has documented the successes and failures in a succession of notebooks. “Sometimes it says, ‘Doesn’t work. Never try this again,'” he admits, but only very rarely. Technical detail, the results of experiments and sketches fill old exercise books, everything from taking a foam mannequin from a plaster mould to lengthening a game head, along with his most recent sketch of an ostrich’s wing bone, life-sized. He talks of his trouble with the leg skin – “It wouldn’t stretch; another time I’d get the legs from an ostrich farm” – the dimensions of the body and how it was made up. There are details of a stoat mounted with flexible foam “so I could alter it very slightly to sit correctly on different bits of wood”. These would make a phenomenal reference work, and Dunton is a great advocate of book research, from old and new. “I can read a technical book… and then do it,” he tells me. He’s what modern teachers would call a self-starter, and not hamstrung by any fear of trying new methods. “I enjoy thinking about how to do things [and] am often thinking about ways to do things better.”
How Dunton works on a buffalo mount is a case in point. “They used to be the bane of my life, but I’ve put a lot of time into working it out,” he says. “These are priced jobs, so, if I spend an extra hour… You’d make money on all the other shoulder mounts; then a buffalo would come in and you’d lose it again.” But not any more: having made his own forms, with deep wrinkles already cut in them to make pinning and folding the skin easier, as well as being able to sew the seams by machine, he has “a system that cuts down the time hugely”.
There is no danger of being stuck in a style rut, though, and he has clients who encourage him to innovate. “I like it sometimes when they make me do something I wouldn’t normally do. Some clients have very strong ideas, some are very traditional and others are flexible and ask what I’d suggest. I like relaxed poses. Someone who has quite a lot of buffalo is a good candidate to try something new; I’d love to do a buffalo on its side with a lion.” He has already done two cheetahs chasing a kudu for a client’s South African room. Though he doesn’t often get to see his work in its final setting, he enjoys it. “I did a leopard once to sit on the back of a sofa. I love doing things like that, a design. Trophies can be natural or a piece of art,” he tells me and adds, laughing, that the enormous buffalo he works on “don’t look that big any more” when hung in a high-ceilinged hall, though at the other end of the scale he has seen a kudu mounted “with its brisket on the floor in a cottage. It looked bizarre.”
Space is a recurring theme with Dunton’s clients. “One bloke is putting up a 25-metre building, but everybody, rich or poor, ends up with the same problem, lack of space.” He has produced dioramas of an apparently infinite variety, one a huge display with leaping buck suspended. Another client has sent two huge eland capes to be shoulder-mounted and has asked for the dimensions, as he has concerns about fitting them in. But Dunton admits, “I don’t want trophies around me, because I have them all day,” so he has just an annexe at home “with stuff on the walls…special ones that mean something to me”. I suspect that his collection is not closed, though, as he tells me about a buff jackdaw he saw the other day. “I like that freaky stuff,” he says with a grin, and then I notice a short-billed woodcock waiting for a glass case.
Dunton has hunted in Africa, though not the big five, which so often pass through his hands, and he often stalks roe locally in Wiltshire. He seems to love the natural world and is a strong advocate for the conservation benefits hunting can bring. “It’s the only way game in any number is going to survive in Africa. I really believe that,” he says. “It’s just a pity that the hunting community and the purely conservation groups couldn’t keep a bit together. It’s a good sport, providing there are rules.” He contends, “The proof of a country’s conser-vation is seeing game outside the protected areas. I’d rather do it where there’s free-ranging game; even if it’s hunted, it’s more natural.”
Listening to good sense and seeing such artistry at work is heartening and fosters a very positive outlook for hunting and conservation. Dunton concludes, “The vast majority of shooting people are very trustworthy and they’re usually good fun, real characters – that’s what Britain is, I reckon.”