Tales of Taxidermy and Whimsy: Modern art from the Victorian era
In recent years, taxidermy has made a comeback. What was once a nearly forgotten craft has been rejuvenated with original pieces, high convention attendance rates, and countless interested buyers.
While for many, the word taxidermy brings up images of Victorian times and rustic, moth-eaten figures on wooden stands, modern taxidermy isn’t about the old-fashioned ravens and elk heads of yesteryear. Today's taxidermists are keen on exploring the art form's playful and whimsical side, by posing their specimens in funny clothes and contexts, or by inventing strange and otherworldly creatures.
But, why is taxidermy coming back now? In a time of social media and technology, packaged food and urban jungles, is this resurgence of a Victorian practice a type of regression? Or, is taxidermy, as a mode with which to connect to the basics of nature, just what our culture needs?
Upon inspection, it’s obvious that there’s something special about this new form of taxidermy: it’s a world that’s mature in its philosophy of death, yet lighthearted in its approach to it; it revolves around a community that delights in breaking stereotypes, but is based on strong ethical standards; it's a modern art form with deep roots.
Taxidermy began in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as a way to preserve animals collected by hunters and explorers. Travel was difficult in those days, and Victorians would marvel at the exotic animals brought back from far away lands.
William Temple Hornaday (1854 – 1937) was famous for working with bison and Carl Akeley (1864 – 1926) was known for his museum dioramas in which his taxidermy was presented in a stunning recreation of the animal’s natural habitat.
While taxidermy was certainly an important educational tool that introduced people to parts of the animal kingdom they might have never seen, it also supplied some of the most fashionable home décor of the age. Colorful birds decorated mantelpieces and beloved family dogs stood guard in their homes forever. The art form was so popular, taxidermists became town staples, much like doctors and morticians.
However, around the beginning of the 20th century, when photography became more accessible, people quickly realized that they could enjoy images of exotic animals without the expense of taxidermy. Plus, with the introduction of animal conservation acts, practitioners suffered poor press for their unethical animal sourcing. Soon, the art form fell out of style and the number of taxidermists plummeted.
Now, after years of minimal representation, taxidermy has returned with novel practices and a fresh style. A form called Rogue Taxidermy has recently emerged, where preserving an animal’s natural appearance is less important than forming an original idea; like creating fanciful winged cats, two headed-animals, and unique interpretations on mermaids.
But another thing that stands out between traditional taxidermy and the new generation is the artists themselves. Many of the newcomers are young, and a lot of them are women. Melanie Atkinson is one of these.
In her mid-thirties, Atkinson sells her work full time on This is My Design Skulls. She’s noticed a lot of women, like herself, going into taxidermy: “I'm not even sure what made me search for it, but I saw a beginner's taxidermy class advertised and thought I would try my hand.” That class was taught by a woman, and now that Atkinson is selling her work, she’s noticed that about 80% of her customers are women as well.
Another young taxidermist Emma Quick, who sells her work on the cleverly named The Quick and the Dead, has also observed a similar trend. “I think it's fairly safe to say there has been a shift over these past five to ten years” she says in regard to the ratio of male to female taxidermists. Quick suspects that this rise in female interest has changed not only the look of the community, but also the practice of taxidermy itself.
Quick’s instructor, also a woman, taught her to focus on animal ethics and a love of nature when working with specimens. In her experience, this attitude is more typically found in female, rather than male, taxidermists. “My feeling,” she says, “is there may well be something to the whole ‘maternal nature’ argument as to why so many women have taken up taxidermy in recent years.”
But, whether the philosophy is about a new generation with stronger ethics or a shift in gender, she feels that the involvement of women will do the art good. “I absolutely do believe the future of taxidermy will be female lead,” she says.
While it’s exciting to see women leading the way for the next generation of taxidermy and reinvigorating the art form, there are different theories as to why so many people across the board have suddenly shown interest.
Atkinson believes that a shift in cultural attitude deserves the credit. “I think when taxidermy first began, society was a lot more open and accepting of death – having portraits taken with their dead loved ones, or taking lockets of hair for memorials.” But, as time passed, there was a change in public opinion regarding death and society became less comfortable with these practices. We no longer look at photos of the deceased, it’s seen as morbid or creepy.
Yet, just as there was a shift away from the macabre in past generations, perhaps there has been a shift towards it now. “I think society is still very restrictive about talking about death,” Atkinson explains, “but I think that culturally we are now a bit more open to the concept of ‘weird.’” And, perhaps taxidermy finds that perfect balance of weird, quirky, and strange without being socially unacceptable in modern times.
Quick, on the other hand, thinks it’s less about the cultural acceptance and more about standards. She says that her involvement “has a lot to do with changes in modern day sourcing and ethics, a better overall public understanding of the craft, and the emphasis now placed on preservation.”
She admits that she probably wouldn’t be doing taxidermy if it weren’t, now, so ethical. The animals she works with die naturally from age or are picked up from the side of the road. “It's no longer just about old men with guns and murderous itchy trigger fingers,” she says. Instead, it seems that this modern taxidermy is more about not letting a life go to waste.
“Whilst you only have to walk into somewhere like a Natural History Museum to understand the importance the preservation of species for educational purposes,” Quick says, “it undoubtedly has a dark past and there are endless examples of unnecessary cruelty.” She brings up Walter Potter (1835 – 1918), a Victorian taxidermist who famously gassed dozens of kittens for his famous tea party piece.
She explains that most modern taxidermists would be horrified at the idea of purposely killing animals to use in their work: “There's quite simply no need for hunting to ever be a part of Taxidermy these days. I'm glad the industry moved so far away from how things used to be done. Taxidermy should be about the celebration of life as opposed to simply a focus on death.”
And, maybe there’s something to this. Atkinson, Quick, and many other artists manage to find humor in their work. They portray mice snorting cocaine or relaxing in a teacup. Some pieces feature animals with surprised expressions or wearing funny hats. It seems like an odd skill to be able to look at a corpse and create something humorous with it, but then again, maybe it’s evidence of an artist’s mature relationship with death and dying.
“I think being a taxidermist has made me more open about death,” Atkinson says, “its something I can now easily discuss when before it was something I was more afraid to examine.” She admits that it’s made her more practical about the idea of dying herself. “I signed up to be an organ donor and told my husband I would just want to be cremated – no muss no fuss!”
Quick also says that being a taxidermist has changed her perception of death and points out that it has also helped her out of a difficult time in life.
“Oddly enough, it was death that lead me down this path. Before becoming a taxidermist, I had a well-paid, lengthy and promising career within the financial industry. I experienced the loss of close family members, along with a beloved pet around this time and I was really struggling to cope and come to terms with everything, so much so that I walked out of my job as a result without any sort of a plan. Whilst I never envisioned becoming a taxidermist, finding a creative outlet for my grief really did help to give me some control over my life again.”
But taxidermy isn’t just about coming to terms with death; often, it’s about exploration and curiosity. “The thing I like most about taxidermy is being able to bring a life-like state back to an animal.” Atkinson says, “I also enjoy the scientific aspect to it as well, how the body works; how tendons and bones went together to make a living, breathing creature.”
As for the future of taxidermy, no one knows for sure what’s to come. Perhaps with all the creativity of Rogue Taxidermy and large numbers of interested young artists, the craft will continue to grow. Or, perhaps, there will once again be a shift in thinking and taxidermy will fade from popularity, much like it did before.
Taxidermy walks that strange line between odd and funny, of death and life. But mostly, it seems, it’s about joy. “I've learned that the pieces are rarely bought as just an inanimate object to display and nearly always carry some real significance to the owners,” Quick says. “As cheesy as it sounds, they are both made and bought with love.”
Note* Images in the public domain (1,4,5,6); Images of "Pronghorn Antelopes" (2) and "Gorilla" (3) are curtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City