So, first catch your hare

COLLECTING The Victorians lavishly embellished their homes with stuffed creatures. Now, taxidermy has gone the way of fur coats. Madeleine Marsh explores a dying art

"YOU'LL LOVE this; it makes Damien Hirst look like Beatrix Potter," enthuses taxidermy collector and dealer David McKinley. Bypassing the cases of stuffed birds and fish that line the walls of his Somerset home, skirting round the baby camel, the boxed cheetahs and the monkey's-head paperweights, ducking beneath a taxidermised fruitbat, he takes me to his current favourite showpiece, a mounted "head" of a two-headed, four- eyed calf.

"This is too much for the British market," he admits. "I'll send it to America. It might look a bit sick to us, but 19th-century collectors were really interested in freaks of nature. Attitudes were completely different then, and having stuffed animals in the house was no more peculiar than hanging a picture on a wall."

Taxidermy has gone the way of fur coats. Animals are still killed (and, of course, still die naturally), but most of us prefer not to keep their corpses in our homes. Our times and sensitivities are out of sympathy with what started as a scientific pursuit in the 18th century and grew into a fashionable craze in the 19th. The Victorian and Edwardian periods were the great age of taxidermy. Ruled by an animal- loving Queen, the British were fascinated by animals. Pet ownership sprang up among the middle classes, hunting was the national sport. Zoos and natural history museums were opened to the public; hundreds of thousands of exotic birds were slaughtered to decorate ladies' hats and fill the glass-domed cases in family drawing rooms.

The expansion of the empire and the development of travel brought access to whole new worlds of flora and fauna. Naturalists, both amateur and professional, toured the globe in the scientific search for new species. If our own age is that of the conservationist with the technology to film animals in their natural habitat, the 19th century was the period of the zoological collector, whose passion for finding out about the lives of animals was inseparable from the urge to shoot them, skin them, stuff them and take their corpses home.

In his Treatise on Taxidermy, zoologist William Swainson wrote in 1840: "Taxidermy is an art absolutely essential to be known to every naturalist since, without it, he cannot pursue his studies or preserve his own materials." He advised readers how best to kill animals of every description without creating too much visible damage to fur or feathers: "Humming birds are advantageously shot when hovering over the flowers on the nectar of which they feed; but the charge should be very small and dust shot alone used..."; or endangering the naturalist himself: "Reptiles and serpents are best procured by the natives."

Out in the bush, there was little choice other than bloodying your hands and stuffing your own specimen, as speed was of the essence; back home, however, there were plenty of professionals who would do the job for you. According to taxidermy historian Christopher Frost, by the 1880s every town and village had its own taxidermist, producing works that ranged in size from a single bird to a whole jungle scene of wild animals, and in quality from the finest, most lifelike examples to the "horrible, shapeless, boggle-eyed, staring monstrosities" that gave taxidermy a bad name.

Stuffed animals can be divided into three major categories: hunting trophies, domestic decorations and scientific specimens. Ever since 1981, when he first fell in love with a goldfinch in a bell jar, David McKinley has collected all of them. His hall is hung with literally dozens of ancient fox masks, each shield proudly inscribed with the name of the hunt and the date of the kill. Most prized by collectors are the foxes stuffed by Peter Spicer of Leamington Spa (1839-1934). "You can always spot them from their facial expression," says McKinley, pointing to one in his collection. "Look at the fantastic muscle definition on that nose, the open mouth. Spicer was a real artist."

Lining another wall, like aquaria frozen in time, are his cased fish. Generally considered to be less offensive than furry animals, stuffed fish today are extremely sought after. A case by Cooper of London, the best taxidermist in the field, could cost anything from pounds 500 and pounds 4,500, depending on the number of fish, the quality of the painted background and the shape of the case (preferably bowfronted).

McKinley owns a veritable stuffed zoo of exotic animals, including bears, monkeys, wild cats and snakes. ("That python skeleton was a Valentine's day present to my wife.") A huge case containing a cheetah snarling over the head of a slain deer was rescued from a local tip after it had been chucked out by a Butlin's holiday camp. "Every Butlin's used to have its Safari Bar," explains McKinley. "But nobody wants anything like that any more. I used to sell a lot of wildlife to restaurants and nightclubs, but now they would rather have half a fibreglass Cadillac coming out of the wall."

There is still considerable demand, however, for his two taxidermised cats, which have appeared in the background of numerous television programmes. Surrounded by the family's live cats (who ignore them totally), these look positively surreal, but more disturbing still is a fox curled up asleep on the sofa in the living room, so lifelike that I almost didn't want to touch it in case it bit my hand.

Part of the strange charm of stuffed animals is that they fall midway between science and art. The bizarre anthropomorphic groups, animals dressed up and performing human activities (McKinley is particularly proud of his sword-fighting squirrels), find their direct equivalent in popular Victorian painting. The taxidermist Rowland Ward (1848-1912), famous for his big-game trophies, also made a speciality of transforming animals into decorative domestic objects, turning rhinos' heads into drinks cabinets, bears and crocodiles into dumb waiters, and, as his piece de resistance, metamorphosing a baby elephant into a hall porter's chair.

With the advent of the First World War, the popularity of taxidermy began to decline. The loss of the empire, the introduction of conservation laws and the change in public attitude killed commercial demand and brought about the closure of most of the famous taxidermy firms. For those, like McKinley, who still practise the craft today, things are very different.

Today the Guild of Taxidermists includes between 250-300 active exponents of the craft. According to executive committee member David Astley, most modern taxidermists specialise in a particular field. "I only work for museums and serious naturalists and I only use road casualties," says Astley. "I don't touch animals that have been hunted or trapped." As we spoke on the phone he was busy stuffing a run-over fox, but most of his subjects are birds. "Somehow, birds take a glancing blow and don't get so badly damaged as animals. People find them on the road, think that they are too beautiful to leave and send them to me."

All taxidermists have to be registered with the Department of the Environment and abide by a code of practice. McKinley works primarily on commission. Most of the animals he uses have been killed in road accidents but some are carcasses bought from zoos and wildlife parks, and everything is carefully registered to prove where and when it died. He won't touch family pets, although there is a demand.

His major clients, both for old and new taxidermy, are film and entertainment companies. A recent commission was to create stuffed props for the new Judge Dredd film.

Though not as booming as in the 1980s, there is still private demand for antique stuffed animals, and the recent Fine Art and Antiques Fair at Olympia included some fine examples of taxidermy, notably from London dealer Emma Hawkins. At the lower end of the scale, prices can be extremely affordable. McKinley's prices begin from as little as pounds 5-pounds 10 for preserved insects. Flea markets will often sell off stuffed animals cheaply; a case of birds at auction can cost in the region of pounds 100.

Though most people might balk at a room full of dead game, individual pieces can look wonderful, though it takes a particular type of sensibility to appreciate them. Cartoonist Martin Rowson has a small collection of preserved wildlife including beetles in cases, an inherited alligator, and "a rather delightful tableau of mongoose and a cobra. I bought it as a wedding present for a friend. It was meant to be a metaphor for their marriage, but I couldn't bear to part with it."

Some years ago, my own mother decided that she wanted a stuffed bear. When, finally, a suitable candidate died a natural death in a zoo in Canada, my younger brother posed for photographs in as ferociously ursine a fashion as a 12-year-old can manage. The animal was stuffed accordingly and now stands in her living room, much to the surprise of visitors.

Many people inherit the odd stuffed animal, and adults often have fond memories of them from childhood visits to local museums. Will it be the same, however, for future generations?

Many museums are becoming less keen on exhibiting taxidermy, both for political and practical reasons. "I think the last exhibits we stuffed here were Chi-Chi and Guy the Gorilla and you can tell how long ago that was," a spokesman from the zoology department at the Natural History Museum told me. "We've disbanded our taxidermy department. It's too expensive to do and keep up. The days of the 'real' museum have gone; now most things are made of fibreglass and polyester, like the dinosaur exhibits."

Clearly feeling somewhat embattled and still bristling with rage, McKinley tells the story of a local museum which had a particularly fine 18th-century stuffed monkey in a sad state of repair. He offered to restore it free of charge, but the next time he returned to the museum he discovered it had been burnt. "I really gave them a mouthful," he says furiously. "It's absolutely atrocious, they would never dream of doing that to a painting." !

TAXIDERMISTS

The Guild of Taxidermists, contact Duncan Ferguson, Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, Glasgow G3 8AG (0141-305 2671). Their "Conference '95" takes place at Askham Bryan College, York, 8-10 September, contact David Astley (01904 448161).

David McKinley, Heads & Tails (01984 623097 - antique and modern taxidermy).

Emma Hawkins, 201 Westbourne Grove, London W11 2SB (0171-221 5218 - antique).

Books: Christopher Frost, A History of British Taxidermy, Lavenham Press 1987

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