Taxidermy, the revival.
Taxidermy has undergone something of a revival in the last 20 years or so, probably due in some part to the so called “YBA`s” (Young British Artists) of the early 90`s. Driven initially by Damien Hurst, Poly Morgan et al and then followed by a host of others. Many young and aspiring artists started to use taxidermy as a vehicle for their work, catapulting it, overnight into the cultural zeitgeist. Taxidermy was becomming “trendy”.
This was in sharp contrast to the situation in the early 90`s early 00`s and onwards, when so many supposedly “enlightened” museums and other institutions, with little or no wider public consultation, took it upon themselves to dispose of some truly fine and completely irreplaceable taxidermy exhibits, dioramas and collections. Historical taxidermy displays became the whipping boy of some museum curators, largely in the name of political correctness, predjudice and dogma. Entire halls of historically and culturally important work were sumarily removed to be “modernised”. Replaced in their stead by soulless graphic panels and interactive computer screens (which these days are obsolete the day thay are ftted). Taxidermy specimens, which were once given context as part of accurate and well researched habitat dioramas, just plonked on acrylic rods in Perspex cases, all too often with badly written and simpistic labelling. A short sighted move, from educated people, whose job it should surely be to protect our heritage without prejudice. The dioramas, in which many of these specimens were set, were in themselves valuable historical works, having taken sometimes many years of dedicated skilled work to complete, when they were originally done. Some containing a very high degree of accuracy to the habitat they were designed to emulate. Tiny hand made wax flowers and carefully collected and preserved plants, were often incorporated into these dioramas with geologically accurate faux rockwork to emulate a large sea cliff or carefully sculpted tree or other natural history tableaux.
The great tragedy of this situation is that many of these collections and exhibits were not accuratley recorded, documented and photographed in situ, prior to their removal, as a difinitive historical record of their existance and this, for a museum, is surely the most unforgivable aspect, quite apart from any other consideration. To document and record cultural artefacts without predjudice is what a museum is for.
I often wonder if this same treatment had been applied to Art galleries or Egyptian artefact displays, in the very same way, what would be the public reaction?. Taxidermy, at least as I see it, was effectively regarded as a historical social embarrassment to be dealt with and removed, as it no longer fitted with a trend or “new world view”. Many of the valuable pieces and collections that were expunged from public ownership (and escaped the incinerator) now appear occasionally in commercial auction rooms, some commanding substantial prices, now only to be seen by individual private collectors, who do recognise their historical and cultural value. The dioramas, and any information on the craftsmen and women who spent years creating them, are now lost.Read More
Given the above, it is somewhat ironic that the new art movement, and many parts of wider society, began to embrace taxidermy, just as so many public institutions decided that, for their agenda, it was no longer De Rigueur. Thankfully, a small number of more enlightened museum curators are again looking at how good quality taxidermy, in the context of an accurate habitat diorama, with well written and accurate labelling, can inform and educate people about our wildlife flora and fauna. Shoving a random badly stuffed bird on a plastic stick is neither interesting, nor educational, especially to younger people. These simplistic, cheap, and unimaginative, museum displays are short lived and they replace the irreplaceable with the irrelvant. Thankfully this situation seems to have been a uniquely British problem. Properly displayed Museum quality taxidermy is still taken seriously and valued in Europe and elsewhere in the world, were it is understood and valued as a vital part of the wider scientific and educational canon.
Today, taxidermy crosses all class and social status barriers. Examples of taxidermy can be seen everywhere in popular culture, from high end contemporary modern art, to advertising, modern interior design to the most humble family home.
The down side to the popularity of taxidermy is that it sometimes attracts attention from parts the mainsteam media, who almost invariably seem to demonise taxidermy, its exponents and fans, variously as something between death obsessed crackpots, quirky oddballs and animal hating killers. This is regrettable as it can lead to those who are the subject of that attention being castigated and attacked on social media and elswhere.
It is perhaps not surprising that few taxidermists wish to be involved with the media, as any trust would be very difficult. It requires a deep knowledge and appreciation of wildlife, years of commitment and genuine artistic skill to be a competent professional taxidermist and this is always overlooked.
For my part, I dont usually mind explaining about my work to people with a genuine interest, but I have no wish to upset anyone or foist my work or opinion upon members of the public, who either do not like the idea of it, or do not want to understand about taxidermy. In a mainstream media situation this is unavoidable, as one cannot qualify, defend or explain what is written missquoted or missunderstood, whether deliberate or not.
Demand for lessons.
Taxidermys popularity with members of the wider public has, understandably, seen a huge resurgence of people wishing to learn how the process is done. During the mid 1980`s, when my own career in taxidermy began, it was predominantly men, with a background in the hunting, shooting and fishing community, or possibly museum taxidermy, who came to taxidermy as a career or paying hobby.
However, since its appearance in the contemporary Art world and the explosion in social media, the demographic of those seeking to learn taxidermy has changed radically, as has the client base for the work. We now see many more people wishing to learn, often from a more urban or metropolitan background, also, far more women have taking an interest than was previously the case. London, in particular, has what could almost be described as a community of people with an interest in taxidermy. Some are aspiring artists, who want to use taxidermy as a medium to produce artistic works. Others wish to learn just part of the process, to preserve skin or bone for use in decoration, jewellery, Art and fashion. Anthropomorphic taxidermy has also become popular and there are of course some people who simply want to have a go at it.
This demand for knowledge and information on taxidermy has led to a rapid growth of “experts” offering to teach taxidermy to any and all comers. The worrying part of this situation for taxidermy is that the quality of that tuition varies massively. A large proportion of taxidermy courses being offered are, to say the very least, well below the minimum standard one should expect. The impression is given to these students that taxidermy is a simple craft that can be grasped in a few days then, after a few months of further casual practice, one will very soon master it.
The net effect of this is that there has been a race to the bottom in terms of quality and standards which is very apparent here in the UK in taxidermy today. Flooding the market with a cheap, mediocre taxidermy service gradually lowers public and client expectations of what good quality work is. With those lowered expectations of quality comes an equally low expectation of cost for that work, and so it goes on. I have seen prices quoted for providing a service to mount a specimen of a fox or bird that are so low that it would be barely possible to recoup the costs to do the mount, let alone earn anything approaching a living from it.
Historically many taxidermists learned their skills over many years under the expert tutelidge of another professional at a museum where skill sets were taught and standards were demanded, there was also an element of scientific rigour applied, with the necessity to understand and measure specimens in detail before and during the process. There were also some professional studios such as Rowland Wards, who also required a particular standard for their work, in order to establish and maintain a reputation for high quality work. Therefore their trainees and apprentices were schooled in the same high standards. There was a trickle down effect from these two systems into the wider commercial taxidermy world and many established taxidermists even today can thank them for what they now know and the ethos of standards and quality engendered by them.
Sadly today few museums, if any, have a taxidermy dept and none, as far as I am aware , are actively training anyone in a taxidermy apprenticeship, likewise in the commercial taxidermy world there are next to no opportunities for a traditional, long term apprenticeship.
This is a concerning situation for the future of good quality taxidermy, as those who seek to learn “real taxidermy” and hope to earn a living from it, need to be taught the correct core skill sets and techniques at the outset, along with the ethos to be constantly self critical and analytical of their own work. They also need to be shown by example what can be achieved, to encourage them to aspire to be the very best they can, and not be satisfied with mediocrity.
If taxidermists in the UK cannot provide quality work, serious clients, looking for that quality work will vote with their feet and go to Europe, where taxidermy is taken seriously and standards are very much higher. If those learning taxidermy are not encouraged learn the correct skill sets, the UK taxidermy scene will be hobbled, by a lack of ability, into providing a poor quality taxidermy service to at the bottom end of the market.
Money, as always, is the main driver and there are many people out there now, who claim to be “professional” taxidermists but who, in reality, have very little genuine long term in depth experience in taxidermy and lack ability. As a result they cannot earn a reasonable living from commissioned work or direct sales, so they take to social media and perhaps set up an ad hoc website, offering taxidermy tuition. This is comparatively easy money because anyone with a few months basic taxidermy experience, who is enthusiastic, self confident, au fait with social media and has a tech savvy approach to self promotion can pop up online, create a profile, stick up a few random snaps then offer taxidermy services and courses, to those searching for a course.
The consequence of this is that many of these courses are taught by people who, when scrutinised, cannot demonstrate the experience, skill and breadth of knowledge required to do so, having no substantial portfolio of quality work to demonstrate their ability. Many have only been on a few two or three day course and mounted comparatively few specimens.
Another aspect of the mass uptake of taxidermy is the legal side. Wildlife law is a serious matter and negotiating the rules is next to impossible, even for those of us who have seen the law change over 30 years, and try hard to keep track. New wildlife Laws, quite literally, pop up from europe or the UK. We, as individual taxidermists, are rarely, if ever consulted and never informed directly of these changes, yet we are supposed to know where to find them and understand the details of them. Even when you do locate the relevant directive or law, getting clarity on its implications is very difficult. Most laws are tested in court and defending a case of wildlife law is well beyond the wallet of anyone who is not wealthy enough to employ a barrister. What is one day perfectly legal can, with the stroke of a pen in Brussels or a government department, become a serious offence the next and you will not know.
Worrying, because not only is it up to you (if you handle wildlife) to know about all these complexed laws, directives and rules, but ignorance of them is not regarded as a reasonable defence. In fact, under certain wildlife laws it is you who must prove yourself innocent, not they who must prove you guilty.
For example; You can pick up a dead buzzard off the road as a rd casualty, take it to a taxidermist and have it mounted. You pay for the service and as you found the buzzard, it is yours, no sale has taken place, therefore no licence or substantive paperwork is required. However, if you then intend to sell it on to a friend, or perhaps on social media or an auction site; then the situation changes very substancially and very seriously. The very intention to sell it requires a licence (Article 10) for which you must apply to the relevant authority, providing full details of the provenance of that bird. The act or intention of offering the bird for sale is an offence carrying a potential prison sentence and swinging fines. How a member of the public or someone new to taxidermy is meant to know this without researching the subject in some detail is a mystery to me but ignorance of these complex, confusing and constanlty changing laws will not protect you. What is more the law is on possession, so saying you got it off “fred” at a randiom car boot sale will not get you off.
Almost daily, on online auction sites or social networking sites and groups, I see things up for sale which legally should not be. The sellers I am absolutely sure are completely unaware of the fact that they are, in the eyes of the law, attempting to profit from a crime. The buyer too, falls into the trap if not aware as, for them too, ignorance is no defence.
Demand for dead specimens.
People who are new to taxidermy are often unschooled in, and ignorant of, these rules and laws. People from the more urban and metropolitan areas taking up taxidermy often find good specimens very hard to obtain and, once they are bored of the obligatory lab mice and dead pigeons, can be all too keen to get hold of new and interesting things to work on. This keenness, coupled with the ignorance of laws, can lead to them buying and obtaining and selling specimens, for which they have no defence in law if caught. The key or answer to all this is educating people properly.
The ten thousand hour rule.
Contrary to the simplistic and very basic approach taught on many of the courses offered, Taxidermy is far from a simple craft one can learn in a few days, weeks or even months. To train someone, fully, to be a “qualified taxidermist”, worthy of the title, would require a traditional apprenticeship, measured in years. This with the proviso that the student has the requisite inherent skills of artistic ability, a genuine study based interest in natural history along with patience and the ability to be endlessly self critical.
It has been said that to become world class or elite, in almost any field of practical endeavour, takes an inherent aptitude for it and some ten thousand hours of deliberate, fully focussed practice. This assertion can of course be debated, but my point is this: To be able to do Taxidermy, with practiced skill, on a wide range of species types, using advanced techniques to achieve a high standard of finish, both in methodology and anatomical accuracy, takes years of practice, experience and accumulated knowledge over a vast range of skill sets. Nobody can be taught, trained, learn (call it what you will) how to do taxidermy on a course of a few days, the very notion is ludicrous. Therefore, offering to teach someone how to “fluff stuff” a mouse or a squirrel, using the most basic and minimum of method, technique and materials, to produce a mount which bears no resemblance to its former incarnation, other than by virtue of the fact its skin has been used, is not taxidermy worthy of the term.
It has to be said, there are certainly many people, who seem to be very happy to pay out good money, to spend a whimsical weekend in convivial surroundings with friends, having a chuckle whilst dismantling a mouse, or some other hapless small mammal. Then randomly stuffing its pickled skin with cotton wool, using the most rudimentary techniques, with no reference or regard whatsoever to making it look anything like an actual real live mouse.
That, of course, is perfectly fine, but those people will absolutely not come away with any real, meaningful knowledge or skills on how quality, professional taxidermy in the 21st century, is really done. They may have had a few days or hours of fun, but they have very definitely not been educated in the real art and practice of taxidermy.
It is ironic to me, that the mouse, rat or squirrel are often chosen as the subject for so many of these beginners courses, because in reality, small mammals, particularly the humble mouse, are without doubt, amongst the most difficult mammals to mount well, even for a seasoned professional.
In nearly 35 years of taxidermy I have seen probably just nine or ten mice, which were genuinely well mounted and faithful to what a real mouse looks like. The more anatomically correct and behaviourally accurate of those were not produced using classic taxidermy techniques, but were in fact “erosion castings” by Emily Mayer, a very talented taxidermist, artist and sculptor. To illustrate my point, whilst writing this article, I trawled the internet to try and find just one, decent quality taxidermy mouse….. dissapointingly, I could find only a couple of photos that looked anything more than a pathetic caricature of a mouse, with shrivelled paws, feet and face, expressionless features and a lumpy body in some contorted totally unnatural pose.
Negative effects on taxidermy
Poor quality, cheap courses run by people with little genuine proven knowledge, has several negative effects on taxidermy. Primarily they drive standards of taxidermy to rock bottom, as students who are told they have been taught properly by a “master taxidermist” will believe they have been professionally trained, when they have not. Many go away and join groups on social media to show their efforts and a “mutual appreciation society”, then springs up, reinforcing the belief that everyones work is “brilliant”! “like my page” etc etc. Professional, constructive scrutiny and critique are absent and unwelcome in this atmosphere. Personal advancement of standards and techniques, by the individuals within these cosy clubs and self congratulatory cliches, becomes impossible. Anybody who descents from the “happy clappy love in” is soon blocked, removed or attacked. I am not talking here about “trolling” (the refuge of the pathetic and the cowardly) nor am I talking about smart Aleck snide comments, I refer here to helpful constructive critique of work.
This is a very negative situation both for the individuals concerned, and the wider public, who may wish to purchase the services of a good taxidermist. The image of Taxidermy suffers, as the perception of it is being reduced to that of a simple craft, one can learn in a week, rather than a highly skilled profession, requiring many years to become adept. Many of these poorly taught students, with little experience, begin producing work and trying to sell it, imagining that they are a fully fledged taxidermist.
Most soon discover, (once they have exhausted the immediate local market) that the prices that their work can command are commensurate with its quality…. low ! very low. Certainly far below what would be required to earn a living to support even a modest household. They find that doing and flogging cheap, low end work, cannot possibly support a business worthy of the name. The net effect of all this, is that commission prices for taxidermy work are driven down, by a perception from the commissioning public, that the job is quick and simple therefore it should be cheap. To do it cheap it must be done quickly and badly and the cycle continues .
Learning taxidermy then, as the highly skilled craft that it really is, takes years of commitment, innate skill and basic hard graft.
So how does a student select a good tutor ?
Firstly, the student needs to decide where they want to be as a taxidermy practitioner.
If having fun, convenience, simplicity and low cost, are the criteria for a professionally taught course, adjust expectations accordingly, downwards and crack on !
However, if the student is genuinely serious and aspires to learn how high quality taxidermy is done; then do some homework and investigate those offering courses.
Only this way, you can begin to build a solid foundation of the skill sets which are a pre requisite to being able to recreate an animal in an anatomically accurate way, faithful to its natural demeanour and character in life.
Don’t be shy about it, if you are paying for a course, (even a cheap one) ask of your potential tutor, their actual level of experience, and further, ask to see current examples from, what should be, their extensive portfolio of quality work. Then, measure those examples of work, not against some hazy notion of what you think good taxidermy is, but more correctly against those same animals in nature – as they are in life. Measure that work against photos of that same animal alive. This is truly the measure of a good taxidermist. A mouse, squirrel, pheasant or a fox should compare favourably to photos of the live animals of that species; lumpy features, bulging odd eyes, odd expressions, tatty feathers, unnatural exaggerated poses are all apparent, if you just care to look.
• Study the subject in detail first, find out what high quality taxidermy really looks like and aspire to that.
• Seek out an experienced professional and vet them thoroughly.
• Find out who exactly is teaching (full name)… “Oh we have a team” … is not an answer.
• Research and compare those offering to teach you (Quality of teaching) not price.
• Look critically at their portfolio of previous work, if indeed they have one at all. If not… be worried!
• A fancy website populated with tatty crows and mice in varying states of undress should ring alarm bells, very loudly; this taxidermist has very little experience.
• You need to know and see what your tutor is truly capable of, so ask. Don’t be fobbed off with clever verbal gymnastics.
• If they say I was trained by “Fred blogs super taxidermist” then ring Fred, and ask him if they were actually formally trained by him, or just rocked up for a 3 day course or two 6 months earlier !
• “I’m a member of the guild of taxidermists” – Membership alone is not a professional status or any endorsment of ability. Membership, on its own, means nothing. Anyone can join, taxidermist or not. The guild itself is concerned about members using its name to try and gain professional credibility.
If you are shown work, emailed photos, a website, ask if they really did ALL OF THE WORK on the pieces.. and are happy to put it in writing with the image. I am now seeing sites now offering courses, with photos, which are blatantly not of work done by those whom will be teaching. Any fool can send a picture and claim they did it.
U.K Guild of taxidermists
You can join the guild, membership is very reasonable and you can attend various events at which there are often lectures and talks given. You can find out more here www.taxidermy.org.uk. I have been a member of the guild in various capacities, including Chair, since the early 1980`s and I fully support its stated aims of raising the profile and standards within UK taxidermy. The guild will not train you to be a taxidermist, nor does membership alone confer status or kudos on a particular member. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in taxidermy.
Currently there are two decent publications available. Both are written by U.K taxidermists, both of whom are experienced professionals with established reputations, capable of producing the highest standards of work. They show the methodology and materials required to produce high quality taxidermy and are the culmination of decades of practice mounting countless specimens. Realistically, neither will make you into a good taxidermist; however, they will give you the firm foundation of technique on which you can build, assuming you have the requisite ability.
Carl Church: Bird Taxidermy: The Basic Manual. This book is available as a PDF internet download concentrates on bird taxidermy.
Mike Gadd : Beginner taxidermy Small mammal Available from Mike himself.
There are a number of very good, highly experienced professional taxidermists in the U.K offering regular, quality, structured taxidermy courses where you can undoubtedly learn a great deal. We are happy to list some here, but there are others who can give excellent tuition: An internet search will yield more information.
All of them have very considerable experience on a wide range of animals and birds and are capable of producing high quality work.
Mike Gadd. West Yorkshire Tel 01937 844580
David Hornbrook. Cleveland Tel 01287 630 940
Derek Frampton. Hertfordshire Tel 01442 257071
George C Jamieson., Edinburgh Tel 0131 33361916
Jack fishwick : Tel 07971 258431
We also provide a small number of tailored taxidermy courses annually, time allowing. The details for which can be found here taxidermy tuition