Taxidermy has hit the mainstream. Last week, Firebox started selling this Mouse Taxidermy Kit for just £29.99, meaning anyone can indulge in a bit of casual rodent preservation from the comfort of their own home. The accompanying book, written by Margot Magpie - teacher of the sell-out anthropomorphic taxidermy courses popping up all around London - details exactly how to create your own stuffed mouse in just four hours using traditional techniques. The kit includes everything you need, bar the mouse (obviously). A list of ethical UK suppliers is included, although city dwellers may very well have their own personal supply at home.
It's definitely not for everyone, but I for one am delighted by this taxidermy revival. As with all trends, it seems to have garnered huge popularity in a very short space of time, but it hasn't, of course. Taxidermy has had its fair share of both popularity and disdain over the centuries, and thanks to a bevy of artists and designers who are using it as the basis of their work, it's experiencing a renaissance, the like of which hasn't been seen since Victorian times.
|Make this little guy with your Firebox kit|
In the 1700s, French apothecary Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur created his arsenical soap, but the exact ingredients were a mystery until 30 years after his death. Taxidermist Louis Dufresne revealed them at the beginning of the 19th Century, revolutionising the practice and enabling taxidermy to move forward from the crude, stiff examples of the preceding centuries.
|Portrait of John Hancock in his Studio by H.H. Emmerson (c.1890)|
Fast-forward to the Great Exhibition of 1851, and we meet John Hancock, widely-regarded as the father of taxidermy as we know it. He displayed a series of preserved birds, and the public went wild. At last, these specimens were life-like and natural, moving one judge to remark that the exhibit "... will go far towards raising the art of taxidermy to a level with other arts which have hitherto held higher pretensions". And indeed it did.
|Part of the diorama Rabbit School by Walter Potter (c.1888)|
|CAT by David Shrigley (2007)|
One such artist is David Shrigley. His work has mass appeal - you'll have no doubt seen his drawings on greetings cards - because it is accessible and witty. He's a conceptual artist, however, so behind the jokes lie themes to make us think. Are we laughing at death when we look at his taxidermy animals, such as the cat above? Are we taking the piss out of a society that has started to anthropomorphise everything, from smoothie bottles to baby wipes? One thing is for sure - Shrigley owes much to Walter Potter's whimsy and techniques.
Likewise, jeweller Tessa Metcalfe's mice are clearly inspired by Potter's dioramas. Sadly for us, they're more of a personal project (she uses her father's roadkill!), so not available to buy. We can still have a good old gawk, though.
|Head On by Cai Guo-Qiang (2006)|
On a much grander scale, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang creates truly spectacular artworks using taxidermy. Head On, pictured above, features 99 stuffed wolves, careering towards a glass panel. From the same exhibition (Falling Back To Earth, currently showing at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art), check out Heritage. Wow.
|Vestige by Polly Morgan (2009)|
|The Ladies by Jane Howarth (2007)|
|Faux taxidermy unicorn head, £496, Rockett St George|
Are you a fan of taxidermy? Are you tempted to stuff your own mouse? And why do you think we've all gone mad for this age-old art form?
- Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy by Dr Pat Morris - A closer look at some of Potter's most renowned works, plus other pieces from his now-closed museum in Bramber, Sussex.
- Taxidermy by Alexis Turner - An in-depth and fascinating study into how taxidermy got its groove back, with loads of gorgeous photos.
- Crappy Taxidermy. We're definitely in favour of promoting good practice in taxidermy, but it's a tricky craft and sometimes it goes terribly wrong.
- The Art of Taxidermy by Jane Eastoe - Lots of history, plus a journey through the contemporary art world, exploring artists using taxidermy today.