Interiors: Skeletons in the closets

Emma Hawkins shares her Edinburgh townhouse with hundreds of birds and animals. They may all be dead, but the house, as Suki Urquhart finds, is very much alive
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The Independent Culture
IT ALL started with a giraffe. Or rather the head and neck of a giraffe, a gift to Emma Hawkins from her father when she was 12 years old. She still has that giraffe mounted on her bedroom wall, and visits it every year when she returns home to Australia.

Fifteen years later, this unusual present has spawned the most extraordinary collection of objects that you could find under one roof: necklaces of monkeys' teeth, skeletons of humming birds, stuffed alligators, birds of paradise, a freak four-legged chicken, kangaroos, bears, cases of birds made from shells and flowers made from butterflies. There are ostrich and emu eggs, moose heads, a couple of stuffed Yorkshire terriers, and far more besides.

The handsome Georgian townhouse in Edinburgh that houses these things is Emma's office as well as her home. But it is difficult to say where office ends and home begins. And in any case, Emma says, everything in the house is for sale. Taxidermy and animal oddities are not her only speciality; she also deals in skeleton clocks, curios and furniture. Her latest find was lying beside the sofa where I was sitting; an exquisite cream silk parasol with a carved ivory handle, trimmed with fringes and beads. The pleasure for her is in finding the objects and living with them until they are sold, although, she admits, there are things that have been painful to part with.

Emma must herself be viewed as an exotic creature in polite Edinburgh society. This is not a city that likes oddities or surprises, and its inhabitants tend to be much more conventional in their tastes than their Glaswegian counterparts. To enter through the front door is to find yourself with Alice in Wonderland, and the temptation to mutter "curiouser and curiouser" as the house reveals its treasures becomes ever stronger. Today, Emma is sombrely attired in black, but she says, "I like to wear feathers in my hair to parties." With this, she picks up an exotic headdress from the table in her office and puts it on with a flourish.

The oval downstairs room where she works does not feel like an office at all. There is a desk, and somewhere, apparently, a computer, but most of the space is filled with her finds, and there is so much to look at that it is almost impossible to concentrate. Two ground-floor storerooms and the hall are filled with glass cases of stuffed animals and curiosities, among which I noticed a 1795 ticket to see a freak called Mr Dunstan - the Mayor of Garrett and a man who "could drink more and be more rude for his size" - a lacquered hornbill, a chandelier made from reindeer horns and a painting of Chinese Siamese twins.

The stone-flagged kitchen in the basement, which Hawkins uses to entertain her clients and friends, is "the heart of the house" and one of the few rooms that she says is "finished". It is dominated by a 20ft pine table running the length of the room, which is the same size as the serving tables in the Brighton Pavilion. A huge eel trap basket hangs from the ceiling and a double-sized, pewter-coloured Aga provides Hawkins with ample opportunity to indulge her passion for cooking. In keeping with her theory that the kitchen should "provide nourishment not only for the palette, but also for the mind", the walls are covered with display cases of stuffed fish, lobsters, crabs and parrots which hang alongside antique chive and parsley cutters and huge turtle shells.

Emma says that when she has a baby, she will suspend one of these shells from ropes and use it as a cradle. An elegant wicker trolley on iron wheels sits in front of a large breakfront bookcase with a cream and gold dinner service displayed inside. When guests arrive the china is piled on to it and used to lay the table.

The reception rooms are not just for living in, as they are used as a showcase for her trade - at the time of my visit the dining-room table was covered in display cases of brilliantly coloured insects - but she mixes her own possessions among the objects for sale so that it feels very much like a home. Great attention has been paid to detail and Emma has taken great care to find period chandeliers and light fittings for every room. There are huge antique bookcases and closets throughout the house; some filled with leather-bound collections of books given to her by her father and others with her extraordinary collections of taxidermy, china and curios.

Emma's clutter-free bedroom, with its polished bare floorboards and simple four-poster bed is almost monastic in comparison to the other rooms. In this private space, there is no need for anything to be on display: collections of shoes and boots were all neatly stowed away and her Sixties Courreges dresses, shawls and feather-trimmed jackets were hanging in orderly rows in her cupboards.

Emma's artistic sense and highly eclectic tastes are in part the result of her upbringing. Her mother is a prolific artist who Emma describes as roaming the bush with "ants in her paint pots", looking for subjects to paint, and her father, from whom Emma has learned so much about the trade, is head of the Australian Antique Dealers Association. When Emma arrived in Britain, she started dealing in silver and jewellery before opening a shop in London and progressing to the more unusual objects she deals in today. She moved to Edinburgh last year.

It was actually her father who precipitated the move. He happened to see that this house was for sale when the family were in town for a wedding, and concluded the deal very quickly. Emma moved in a year ago to contemplate the remains of an office, covering five floors, with the accompanying neon strip-lighting and tangle of wires for machinery. Unmentionable floor coverings had been stuck to the beautiful stone-flagged floors and the elegant curving stone staircase, flooded with light from the cupola above, that winds its way up to the top floor. Even the wooden floors upstairs have suffered. She is still struggling to remove these layers of vandalism.

Although Edinburgh may not seem the ideal place to sell such unusual pieces, Emma does not regret the move north. She loves the feeling of freedom, housing is "cheaper than it should be" and she has international customers prepared to travel once they have ascertained that she has something they want. They know that her perfectionism and appreciation of "properly made" pieces means that she will sell only perfect examples of their type. "Taxidermy is an art form," Emma enthuses, going on to explain that she sees her stuffed animals and birds not as dead animals, but as decorative objects which combine colour, texture and romance.

But taxidermy has changed much since its heyday in the 19th century, when it was not unusual for Victorians to have their pets stuffed and preserved under glass. Modern health and safety regulations mean that taxidermists have to take the skulls out, which can affect the shape of the head, and the acrylic tape used produces inferior results.

Once, she says, she even sold the stuffed head of Thomas Paine (bought at Olympia) to his descendants, adding whimsically that the family "checked with the dog, and the dog said yes". In fact, human heads are not terrifically unusual, she says, though "it is better if they are not lobotomised, as the spirit will not then have been set free".

She gets upset by people who are rude or ignorant. She loves animals, and can't stand seeing caged birds: preserving death is not the same as promoting the killing of animals, she points out, "and once I explain to people how I think and how I operate, they usually understand". Her favourite pieces are the skeletons because they are so "sculpturally perfect". Humming birds are the most beautiful, but it is very hard to find completely undamaged ones. "I know people think I live in some kind of a dream world because of all this," she shrugs, "but I think it's important to retain a sense of enchantment in life". If she hadn't become an antique dealer, she thinks she would probably have become an actress.

At the moment a new fantasy is being brought to life in a suite of rooms on the top floor, which Hawkins is arranging for the many friends and family that visit. Perfect dolls houses, cradles and highchairs have been found for her sister's children, and she has already set aside a few things for her own. "Once I have found the right person, I will stop living by myself and indulging the house," she says. "But until then, I am more than happy with my life as it is." 1

Emma Hawkins, Stand F10 at the Olympia Fine Art & Antiques Fair, London, until 13 June (0171 244 2219 for opening times). Hawkins & Hawkins: 0131 229 2828