Taxidermy, by Alexis Turner
An illustrated homage to taxidermy explores the practice from Victorian times to the present
Thames and Hudson
After the horrendous loss of life in two World Wars, there was a gradual public revulsion towards hunting big game for sport. Hunting, collecting, and taxidermy all became unpopular. Many private collections were sold off or vanished from public view. Eton College, the famous boys’ public school in England, auctioned off most of its collection as recently as 1996. The majority of it had been gifts from game-shooting deceased past pupils, and the auction attracted widespread media attention.
Advertising and art
After the millennium, taxidermy began to become fashionable again, although in very different forms than that of a century previously. Vintage items now turn up in pubs, restaurants and boutiques as ironic pieces of decoration. Judging from the photographs in this book, there’s also a trend for customising taxidermy for private homes: half a vintage zebra leaps out of a hall wall; a white cat in a glass box has been turned into a bedside table; and a “contemporary” flamingo sits in the alcove of a bathroom.
Exotic animals legally being stuffed today can be only zoo deaths, roadkill casualities, or animals killed by each other. The trend for stuffing domestic pets, however, particularly dogs, continues to be popular, although as Turner notes, “It can be an emotional experience for the client, and some taxidermists prefer to decline these difficult commissions.”
In Victorian times, pets were either encased in glass, or had their heads mounted. The 21st-century naturalist fashion for displaying your dead stuffed pet is in a sleeping position, usually by or near the spot where they liked to sleep when alive, which is bound to surprise those guests who haven’t visited for some time.
The most public and visible examples of taxidermy now are in fashion, advertising and art. Couture designers, such as the late Alexander McQueen, made startling dresses and headpieces from feathers and pieces of birds. The artist Polly Morgan is making inventive and sought-after pieces in a new style of taxidermy; one work has stuffed chicks breaking out of lightbulbs.
Retailers and jewellers use taxidermy in dressing windows or in shoots: there is a picture in this book of an ostrich modelling seven necklaces, and a chihuahua festooned in diamonds. Inanimate models have the advantage of not moving under the camera lens, and an ostrich’s neck can display seven necklaces more efficiently than a human neck. Plus, you’re almost certain to look at it twice.
Taxidermy is a cabinet-of-curiosities of a book. It’s beautiful, odd, intriguing, strange and sometimes repellent, just like the history of taxidermy itself.