The fine art of stuffing stiffs
When qualified vet Ingrid Houwers isn’t busy creating award-winning pieces of taxidermy, she’s making jewellery or crafting set-dressings for ‘Game of Thrones’
Uncanny: bee-eaters preserved mid-snack by Ingrid Houwers. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker
Uncanny: a recreated goat eye. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker
Uncanny: Ingrid Houwers and some of her pieces displayed in her workshop. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker
Uncanny: detail of a peacock’s tail feathers. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker
Uncanny: taxidermy by Houwers in her workshop. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker
From the moment you walk into Ingrid Houwers’s studio, you feel like you’re being watched.
A red squirrel pauses to dart a beady eye over its shoulder, a fox crouches low to avoid being seen and a buzzard stares out imperiously from its high perch. All of them seem caught in a single moment, suspended in time, ready to scurry or leap or fly in the next second.
“What I want to see on people’s faces is a double-take,” says Houwers. “Is it actually alive? The creature should be so life-like that they have to look twice.”
Now 28, she has been a professional taxidermist for over 10 years. Growing up in Lelystad, Holland, in a house on the edge of a forest, Houwers would often pick up rabbit and bird skulls, fascinated by their beauty and delicacy, and by the age of 14 she had joined the Dutch Taxidermy Guild.
Later, her love of art, especially Dutch masters and pre-Raphaelite paintings, came to influence her taxidermy skills and perhaps it is this aesthetic sensibility that gives Houwers’s subjects such remarkable grace and character. One award-winning piece is a pair of courting bee-eaters, which seem to float in mid-air, a bumblebee suspended between their long beaks.
Winning prizes in the world of international taxidermy isn’t easy: judges do odd things like shining flashlights up the noses of animals to check that the vascular system is accurate. It’s not simply a case of stuffing a carcass and hoping for the best.
And being a taxidermist is a more varied job than you might think. On any one day, Houwers, who originally trained as a vet, can find herself skinning a cheetah for academic research, helping blind children learn about wild animals from the feel of their fur and claws, or teaching a group of interested amateurs how to dissect an owl. An accomplished silversmith, she also makes jewellery from boar tusks and the antler tips of Irish red deer.
More recently, Houwers has been supplying the HBO series Game of Thrones, which is partly filmed in Northern Ireland, with ethically-sourced skulls, furs and skins, for costumes and set dressing. One of her proudest souvenirs is a photograph of Thenn Warg, played by Joseph Gatt, standing with Houwers’s eagle owl perched on his shoulder. “We had to send it to Iceland as a stand-in, because the real owl didn’t have its paperwork sorted,” she explains.