Taxidermy is making an unexpected comeback and in some of the strangest places

Pic Neil Hanna
Pic Neil Hanna
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Late on a muggy Edinburgh morning, in his laboratory in Granton, near the Forth, Phil Howard is bringing a Harris hawk back to life; or rather, to put it more accurately, he is creating the appearance of life in a bird long dead. This is his great skill. Howard is an illusionist, a resurrectionist; more plainly, a taxidermist.

He is a quietly spoken man of 62 and has worked at the National Museum of Scotland for 30 years, during which period his subjects have ranged from hummingbirds to polar bears. When a creature dies in a zoo or wildlife park, when an otter is run over or a prized hawk smashes fatally into a pane of glass, Howard and the institution he serves are often the beneficiaries. He has a gorilla skin tanning in a bath of alum as we speak.

Taxidermy Feature- Grainne Morgan'Pic Neil Hanna

Taxidermy Feature- Grainne Morgan'Pic Neil Hanna

His desk is cluttered with the instruments of his trade – scalpel, scissors, paintbrush, pliers and, in the sort of detail one could find in a 17th-century still life, the long, elegant skull of an ibis. In a plastic box, the sort that might ordinarily contain a lunchtime sandwich, there is a meaty, bloody thing the approximate size of a human heart. This is the body of the Harris hawk, which Howard has cut from its skin. He has carved its likeness in balsa wood, added ersatz bone and muscle using wire and jute and clay, and is now carefully tugging the feathery skin, currently inside-out, on to this manikin. The bird’s real beak, he keeps in place.

It is painstaking, pernickety work requiring a sculptor’s eye and a scientist’s appreciation of animal anatomy and behaviour. It can take two days of solid graft to prepare a hawk. A giraffe takes several weeks. The word ‘stuffed’, so associated with taxidermy in the popular imagination, is a hopelessly inadequate expression of the required finesse. Yet Howard seems a taciturn and modest man with a tendency to play down his talent. “All you are doing is replacing what you took away,” he explains. “It is tailoring in reverse – you are making a body to fit the clothes.”

Taxidermy had its heyday during the Victorian era. Animals selected for mounting would be shot specifically for the purpose, either by those hunting for their own pleasure or in order to swell the collections of museums. In 1896, Carl Akeley, the so-called father of modern taxidermy, killed a leopard with his bare hands while on expedition in Somalia. Most animals mounted in the UK these days either die naturally or are killed accidentally. It is estimated that almost two million creatures die on British roads each week.

Carl Akeley was American. Closer to home, we had Charles Kirk (1872-1922), who ran Scotland’s largest taxidermy studiom – at 156 Sauchiehall Street, in Glasgow – and mounted Sir Roger, Kelvingrove’s iconic elephant. Following the closure of Kirk’s studio, several of his staff went to work at the National Museum of Scotland. Phil Howard has a photograph of them, taken at some point around the end of the Second World War. “I do feel a connection,” he says.

Photograph by PHIL WILKINSON / TSPL copyright 'Tel +44 (0) 7740444373''taxidermy FEAUTRE , SPECTRUM.''THE ANIMAL SPECIES SECTION OF NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND , CHAMBER STREET. WHICH INCLUDES MANY PRESERVED ANIMALS USING taxidermy.

Photograph by PHIL WILKINSON / TSPL copyright 'Tel +44 (0) 7740444373''taxidermy FEAUTRE , SPECTRUM.''THE ANIMAL SPECIES SECTION OF NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND , CHAMBER STREET. WHICH INCLUDES MANY PRESERVED ANIMALS USING taxidermy.

Howard, clearly, is perfectly at home in his lab, stepping around a tiger skin, shoving a box of skulls to one side and opening the drawers of a metal cabinet full of glass eyes in every size and shade. “Help yourself,” he says, politely, as if offering a plate of hors d’oeuvres. There are primate eyes, avian eyes, albino eyes. Taxidermists can even make eyes that reflect light, flashing green like a fox in car headlights. For the Harris hawk, he selects 13mm eyes in a particular shade of dark brown that meet his high standards of verisimilitude.

Creating something that looks alive, that looks as though, in the next moment, it is going to move – that’s the goal. There is no room in this industrious environment for sorrow at the death of the animal that afforded this opportunity. In life, it was an individual, perhaps loved and admired by its owner or keeper, and it may even have had a name; in death, it becomes a mere example of its species and a problem for the taxidermist to solve. “It is,” says Howard, “like making a model of anything.”

It requires, perhaps, the poetic temperament and sensitive perceptions of an artist to appreciate the unusual atmosphere of a taxidermy lab, which may be one reason why taxidermy has been embraced, of late, by the world of visual art. The current trend goes back to the work of Damien Hirst, whose influential works involving animals were created in association with the taxidermist Emily Mayer. These days, the London-based artist Polly Morgan is probably Britain’s best-known proponent of taxidermy as art. Banksy called her “Britain’s hottest bird-stuffer” and she has sold pieces to Sharleen Spiteri (a robin) and Kate Moss (a blue tit sleeping on a leather-bound prayer book). “I see it as raw material to work with,” she has said. “With no soul left, the body becomes a beautiful ornament.”

Morgan learned the process from the Edinburgh taxidermist George Jamieson, travelling to see him from her home in London and returning the following day with a mounted pigeon. Their relationship is on-going. She continues to make the journey north for further instruction, most recently earlier this month, when she worked on a stag. “I was very lucky to find George,” she says. “He’s an exceptional taxidermist and a patient teacher.

“That first time was exciting and magical. It was a beautiful wintry day. He lives in this tower and there was all this wildlife around – an owl in the tree outside and rabbits all over the lawn. I loved every second of the taxidermy. It was a life-changing day. It opened a whole new world for me and awakened an interest in wildlife. Now, I find it difficult to understand why people wouldn’t be interested in taxidermy.”

Andrea Roe, a lecturer in sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art, spent a year as a volunteer in the taxidermy department of National Museum of Scotland and then a further year as an artist-in-residence. She has made several pieces of art based around taxidermy. She talks with real fascination about the “uncanny in-between state” between death and life that taxidermy inhabits, and recalls with Proustian clarity the strong sensory impressions of the lab: “the dense, feathery, claustrophobic smell” of the bird store; the lions being carried in and out; the paint chart detailing every possible shade of a cat’s tongue.

Her journey into taxidermy began on a trip to Bass Rock with the discovery of a gannet. “It was incredible,” she says. “Newly dead and its eyes still glinting. I thought, ‘My God, what am I going to do? I can’t leave it there.’ So I borrowed somebody’s freezer and stored it, and then I got in touch with the museum to ask about how to preserve it. That was my introduction to the taxidermists.”

Working as a volunteer, she would skin two or three birds each day; newly defrosted, their bodies still warm from the microwave, she held them in her hand and could never quite shake the feeling that they were alive. There was a moment that gave her a jolt every time – moving the feathers away from the breast bone, making the first incision and pulling the skin back to reveal sudden redness. For Roe, the key moment in taxidermy is when the eyes go in. “Suddenly, the bird seems to acknowledge you,” she recalls. “It is a revelation.”

Howard’s hawk is one of the last remaining exhibits still to go on display in the refurbished National Museum of Scotland. Over the last three years, he and others have mounted hundreds of specimens for the animal galleries. It has been the largest and most challenging taxidermy enterprise for a generation, with exotic corpses arriving daily from around the world, each requiring careful expert attention. “It has been very intense,” says Dr Andrew Kitchener, the principal curator of vertebrates. “The vampire bats only turned up from Trinidad the week before we opened.”

But as visitor numbers attest – half a million people in the first six weeks – it has been a triumph. It is a testament to the taxidermists’ art that, for all its stillness, the impression is one of frenzied motley, as if Noah’s Ark had run aground and broken open on Chambers Street. Touring the galleries in the company of Kitchener, one also learns to appreciate the secret details of taxidermy. That giant panda chewing on a frond of eucalyptus died in 1938, spent some time as a rug and was mounted during the 1960s; over the years, exposed to the light, the dark patches of its fur faded considerably, so Phil Howard airbrushed them black before it went back on display. “It has actually come out very nicely,” says Kitchener.

Also on display, on the upper level, is a fine collection of extinct and endangered creatures, including a Tasmanian thylacine and the skeleton of a dodo – fitting, as Howard himself is rather a precarious survivor, the last taxidermist in the last museum taxidermy department in Britain.

Taxidermy is, in some ways, a dying art. There has been a resurgence of late in the numbers of people collecting taxidermy, but the numbers of those learning to do it lag behind. During its Victorian heyday, there were 2,000 professional taxidermists in the UK; now there are 200 or so. In Scotland there are only a handful.

Newcomers interested in the trade may be put off by complicated and costly legislation around the sale of birds of prey and other protected animals, and by an ongoing public relations problem. “Everybody tends to look upon us as parasites,” says one taxidermist.

There is concern, among those who value such things, that the old skills will be lost. “It has been a worry, yes,” says Kim McDonald of the UK Guild of Taxidermists. “You do wonder who is going to take over. And we are in an age when taxidermy is seen as not PC. Some of the museums are getting rid of their old collections and literally throwing them on the trash heap, which is absolutely sacrilegious. We’ve heard horrible stories of collections being burnt.”

If there is a future for taxidermy, it may lie in its recent embrace by artists like Morgan and Roe, as well as those from the worlds of fashion and design. Membership of the UK Guild of Taxidermists, static for a decade, has started to rise slowly, driven by this new trend. “Taxidermy is a good starting point for design or fashion. It bleeds into lots of different areas,” says Emma Hawkins, a young antique dealer who lives in Edinburgh but sells out of London. “It is, basically, God’s art.”

“The key buyers at the moment are 18 to 35,” says George Johnson, the owner of Lady Kentmores, an antique shop in Callander. “The die-hard collectors are mainly women. There’s one young lady who comes in, she’s in her mid-20s, lives at home and has bought a dozen items in the last year. She has asked if I can get her a polar bear mat. Her mother doesn’t mind as long as it stays in her room and she doesn’t have to clean it.”

Johnson doesn’t just sell taxidermy, he adores it. He has a tiger’s head on the office wall and would dearly love to acquire a mermaid – half-fish, half-monkey – the sort of gruesome novelty beloved of the Victorians. “That’s the showman side of me coming out.” He comes from fairground stock. His family, years ago, toured with freak shows and ghost trains. “Taxidermy holds a macabre fascination for people today. Everyone’s moving on from this completely politically correct world we live in, and they want to experience some of that Victorian delight in the old sideshows.”

We are, he believes, in a post-Ikea cultural moment; people, bored of the minimalist and homogenous, are ditching their Billy bookcases in favour of billy goats. If this is true, it all ties in with a growing public taste, partly nostalgic, partly driven by environmental anxiety, for handmade and vintage.

One beneficiary of this trend is the Edinburgh jeweller Grainne Morton, who creates pieces from found objects and displays them on taxidermied birds and animals. A mounted rook wears around its neck a pendant made from enamel, bakelite, fragments of antique jewellery, and a silver crown cut from a George V coin. A red squirrel holds a brooch made in part, from an old RAF shield badge; it is decorated with acorns and oak leaves. The idea is that the customer buys not just the jewellery but the mount too. “Very much what I’m trying to do is honour and glorify the animal and make them beautiful,” she says.

Morton does not mount the animals herself. She buys them online. However, when she first began working with taxidermy, she sought advice – like Morgan before her – from Jamieson. Now 57 and a long-established professional, he has been a keen taxidermist since the age of 14 – when, armed with a Victorian how-to guide, he began mounting the gulls and geese he found washed ashore at Aberlady bay.

He lives in the 14th-century Cramond Tower and works from a cluttered and cobwebby woodshed that overlooksg the beach and all the glories of creation. As we talk, he sits and works, a mild man in a blue boilersuit, sewing up a roadkill badger’s paw. The table is protected by a copy of The Scotsman and there is a faint smell of formaldehyde in the air. Through the window, swallows bunch and swoop. There is a tremendous sense of living amongst nature. The taxidermist enjoys the sight of squirrels and stoats in his garden, and the sound of jackdaws throwing down twigs on to the shed roof. Hanging beside the window is the dusty deathmask of a roe deer. A pine marten skin is draped over the fleshing machine. “Blood and bits of bone,” Jamieson shrugs, “are just another natural material, like wood and clay.”

He does commissioned work for private individuals, businesses and museums. He has mounted grouse for Famous Grouse and two guide dogs for a blind woman who wanted to be able to feel the animals’ faces. He was once asked to tan the tattooed skin of a deceased Hell’s Angel, and thinks he would have done so, but nothing came of it in the end. Although he is a commercial taxidermist, he considers himself an artist and makes little distinction between his work and that of Morgan or the Paleolithic cave-painters of Lascaux.

No hunter or fan of hunting, though he accepts the necessity of culling, Jamieson sees taxidermy as an expression of his admiration for the animal and a way of being connected with the reality of nature. “Out of respect, I want to make them as realistic as possible,” he says. “Three young foxes play in the garden here. They come up within ten feet of me and are almost tame. The thought of killing one to show it would be obscene. But if one died naturally, I’d want to show the best of that animal. I want other people to see the beauty that I see.” It is, in part, a way of giving an animal a public legacy.

Jamieson thinks the current wave of interest in taxidermy is being driven by a reaction against the disconnection from nature many of us feel in this insulated, socially networked age, and against the way in which discussion and acceptance of death has become almost taboo. You get the feeling that, for him, taxidermy is not just something to pay the bills, it is a profound and necessary communion with wildness. “The real thing is perfection,” he says, laying a fond hand on the antlers of a huge red deer. “And I can’t reproduce that.” n