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Tuesday 15 April 2014

Get Stuffed! How Britain fell back in love with taxidermy

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
The word taxidermy comes from the Greek for 'arrangement of skins', and using that definition, it can be argued that caveman was the first practitioner. Ancient Egyptians went a step further with the mummification of animals, often much-loved pets who were sent to the afterlife to keep their humans company. Tanning and embalming were jumping-off points for true taxidermy, and techniques continued to develop throughout the ages, in particular in Europe. 

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)
A few years later, Walter Potter's anthropomorphic taxidermy tableaux tapped into the rising popularity of this newly-minted art form. After Hancock's Crystal Palace exhibit, Victorian households of a certain social standing were filled with dead animals - even Queen Victoria herself had a collection - and Potter's dioramas had a whimsy and humour which broadened taxidermy's appeal. His ethos informs the work of many artists today.

CAT by David Shrigley (2007)
We've come a long way since the shock and outrage at Damien Hirst's first forays into taxidermy nearly 25 years ago (can you believe the pickled shark was made in 1991?). The art world has long been enchanted by taxidermy, and the past couple of decades especially have seen the emergence of many artists for whom it is a cornerstone of their practice.

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)
For some, taxidermy seems cruel and unnecessary, particularly when the provenance of the animal corpses is unknown. British artist Polly Morgan, whose work is probably my favourite of all the taxidermy art around at the moment, uses only animals that are either found or donated. And just look what she does with them - so macabre and beautiful.

The Ladies by Jane Howarth (2007)
Jane Howarth's Bonne Bouche series of taxidermy seagulls replaces gory guts with pearls and kid gloves to startling effect. Her work has also filtered into the mainstream, having produced a line of homewares in collaboration with Luna & Curious a couple of years ago. 

Faux taxidermy unicorn head, £496, Rockett St George
Finally, if you love the look of taxidermy but not the actual process behind it, look no further than Rockett St George, who stock all manner of faux heads and trophies, including a unicorn. I'm also rather fond of Ruth Winding's faux taxidermy, in particular her swan

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?

Further Reading:
  • 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.


  1. Taxidermy fascinates me. The most interesting thing for me is that there seems to be two different camps when it comes to the animal - those who want to create something as lifelike as possible, and those who want to anthropomorphise the animal they're working with.

  2. Mister Finch makes the most beautiful fake taxidermy that I covet. It's all from recycled materials and looks amazing!
    I grew up surrounded by taxidermy and love it! Wish I had enough space to own some though!

  3. I think I'd rather own one of these guys for the comedy value Terrible Taxidermy. Otherwise it's all a bit creepy.

    Has anyone seen the Tales of the Unexpected episode called 'The Landlady' - I still have nightmares...

  4. Thanks for alerting me to this! Doing a sculpture course, created a Polly Morgan Pinterest board yesterday and tomorrow am attempting to Plaster of Paris a chicken carcass...Attempting taxidermy myself is both an exciting and nausea-inducing possibility now, especially as it's payday on Thursday. No payday new shoes this month, just a supply of dead mice...!

  5. Taxidermy freaks me out! Especially in dimly lit museums or country houses where you can enter a room and suddenly realise there are all these dead but shiny eyes looking at you. I think it's the lifelikeness and the deadness together that do it. Like they're zombies or other revenants come back to haunt their human killers. :-S

  6. I find taxidermy incredibly beautiful when its done well, but still not sure I'd want it in my home! I love this artist particularly the way she has her animals all curled up 'asleep' in hats or little boxes. and they're all ethically sourced. I think that's the big difference- I'm not really comfortable with people going out to kill things especially to stuff them, which is still incredibly popular in America. I was recently in a tiny, tiny town in Nevada and there were 3 taxidermy shops. THREE. For a town with a population of about 500. Apparently tourists love them.

    1. That's horrible. I like that artists are able to create something beautiful and thought-provoking from a dead animal, but I think killing an animal for art is an awful thing. Tessa Metcalf doesn't often take on commissions (and I'm sure she gets a lot of requests) because she only uses roadkill.

  7. Also- hilarious post from good friend of mine who's recently taken up taxidermy!

  8. This is fascinating, Laura B, and well researched BUT how did you manage to resist mentioning your beloved Derren?!
    (For those who are puzzled, just Google Derren Brown taxidermy.)

  9. I have to admit I have I purchased this kit and assumed it was fine and also attended a taxidermy class run by the author of the manual at the Last Tuesday Society. After then attending a course in the subject with an accredited taxidermist I discovered it all to be more of a cheat's guide and the workshop was not real taxidermy. Such a shame for those wanting to follow in the industry and learn professional skills.

    1. What did the workshop cover instead, anon? What do you think of the kit itself?


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