Death becomes her: Meet Polly Morgan, Britart's hottest property

Five years ago Polly Morgan was a barmaid with a fascination for taxidermy. Today, having been spotted by Banksy, hailed by Hirst, and picked up by Saatchi, she's the toast of the big galleries. On the eve of a major new show, Charlotte Philby meets the artist in her studio

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:13

Polly Morgan is poised over one of two huge freezers which greet visitors in the hallway to her east-London studio. Rolling back the sleeve of her black silk shirt (Marc Jacobs, eBay, £20), she delves an arm deep into the chest, past a packet of Tesco tortilla wraps, and pulls out a collection of large zip-lock bags: "These are the crow's heads," she states, matter of fact, thrusting several feathered body parts bound in plastic into my hands for closer inspection. "And these are their wings," she reaches in further and retrieves another load. The 30-year-old taxidermist is talking me through some of the birds that feature in her forthcoming exhibition Psychopomps, which opens at London's Haunch of Venison gallery next week.

Along the way, she identifies the smaller varieties – finches, sparrows, a tiny Asian robin – by giving their vacuum-packed bodies a gentle squeeze. For one of the pieces she needed a number of orange canaries to resemble flames, she explains, fondling the packets with slender fingers, nails painted an emerald green – but such things are hard to come by. So, for a while her Bethnal Green studio was transformed into a bird hair salon: "There was a production line: one person skinning the bird, another dying the feathers, another putting the creature back together." When people ask, Morgan adds, slamming the freezer shut: "I describe my craft as part butchery, part sculpture."

In the past few years, Polly Morgan has secured her place as one of the most important – and collectable – artists of her generation, and a leader in the next generation of YBAs. One of her first professional works – a white rat curled-up in a champagne glass – was snapped up by Richard Branson's sister, Vanessa, for £2,000 hours before it was due to be exhibited at Zoo Art Fair.

That was in 2005; the following year she made a lasting impression on some of the art scene's most powerful players, including Gagosian director Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst and Damien Hirst, with Still Life After Death (rabbit), in which a small white bunny is displayed curled on top of a magician's hat, and To Every Seed His Own Body, a tiny bird, eyes closed as if in sleep, laid out on a worn, leather-bound prayer book inside a glass dome.

"There is a general distinction between male and female taxidermists," Morgan observes. "Men tend to favour big, robust creatures. These are less interesting to me; I'm drawn to the delicate and fragile." As a consequence, perhaps, there is a quiet, haunting quality to her work, which has captured the attention of serious collectors including Charles Saatchi, and amateur enthusiasts, among them Kate Moss and Courtney Love, alike. Should you fancy a piece of Morgan for yourself, ordinarily, this will set you back between £8,000 and £30,000 a pop. If you're lucky.

Morgan's largest creation to date sold to Thomas Olbricht for a whopping £85,000, and now hangs in the entrance to his gallery, me Collectors Room, in Berlin. A "re-imagined" version of the piece, entitled Departures, will be displayed at Psychopomps. The original, which is based on a Victorian flying machine, is an enormous, ghoulish construction consisting of countless starlings, pigeons, canaries and three huge white-backed vultures, all in flight and strapped to a circular frame with leather harnesses. This one work alone comprises a fair few freezer-chests of bodies.

When Morgan first started out, she would trawl pet shops, wildlife parks and farms to keep up a regular supply. She'd also drive up to a big bird fair in Stafford where she'd offer stall-holders £5 for every bird that died. Since then, she's built up a network of clients who provide her with animals, including vets, zoo-keepers, people with aviaries, and her mum, who scavenges for roadkill near her Cotswolds home. "All of the animals have either died of natural causes or had unpreventable deaths," Morgan adds.

As she talks, I struggle to keep my attention from drifting towards another, very much alive, creature in our midst. Trotsky, a young Staffordshire bull terrier, is a recent acquisition from Battersea Dogs Home. During our time together he takes turns propelling himself at my stomach with the full weight of his body and taking my wrist in a firm jaw-lock. I wonder if his behaviour is the result of trauma from watching his owner skin and stuff dead animals all day long. Apparently not. Morgan insists that he shows very little interest in her work, only occasionally "having a sniff, and then wandering away again". In any case, Trotsky needn't be concerned about his own fate.

"No way," Morgan shudders at the thought: "I have no emotional attachment to the animals in my pieces, I don't dwell on their lives. It would be very different if I knew him or her." Though she has frozen one of her pets, a canary which used to fly freely in the studio she shared with her ex-fiancé, the 57-year-old installation artist Paul Fryer, an old friend of Damien Hirst. "She would sleep curled up on one of the beams, like a tiny ball of coloured feathers," Morgan recalls. When she died, two years ago, the couple decided to freeze her body, but Morgan hasn't been able to do anything with it since: "Even now it's still difficult just to pick her up. If I come across her body in the freezer, I panic and drop it."

The mere fact of preserving its lifeless body in ice could be perceived by some people as morose. Morgan disagrees: "I'm not a morbid person, I'm actually really optimistic. I hate the fact that death hangs over us all our lives." It is the aesthetic of the body in a state of total relaxation, she argues, which is of central interest in her art. "I see it as a raw material to work with; with no soul left, the body becomes a beautiful ornament."

An article earlier this year in Modern Painters described Morgan's oeuvre as follows: "Traditionally taxidermy mounts the carcass of the animal, giving it not just volume but the illusion of vigour. By contrast, Morgan's works all emphasise the dying fall of the animal's body... these animals are not restored to life but, so to speak, resuscitated into their deaths." I put this to her this morning, seated on a large white sofa in her kitchen and loomed over by a glass-eyed chimp. It's the only piece of taxidermy Morgan owns ("I no longer want to surround myself with the stuff"); she bought him from a man who delivered it to her home strapped into the front seat of his car: "He has incredibly good posture, he reminds me of a little boy." For a moment, Morgan ponders my question: "Well, I love the way the creatures look when they come to me," she responds finally. "As a child, I always wanted to keep the bodies of any animals I had that died; I see my work now as an opportunity to freeze that moment."

It was in 2004, having been made redundant from her bar job in Shoreditch, that Morgan first considered skinning an animal. Yet her career in taxidermy might be traced back to her childhood in the Cotswolds. "It was quite a sweet, country upbringing," she muses. "I went to the village primary school, with about 20 other children." The family had several pets: dogs, cats, fish, hamsters and budgies among them, plus 200 goats and six llamas at one point. While her mother worked as a secretary for most of her career, her father – "a bit of an eccentric" – spent a number of years artificially inseminating cattle.

"When he was made redundant, my dad started various companies involving animals and we'd have all sorts of creatures running around the place," Morgan recalls. "I remember at one stage seeing him opening one up to see why it had died; I remember the gassy smell, and being enthralled by the process." She says it also made sense that she should end up doing something that very few people her age were doing at the time: "When I see someone do one thing, I like to do the opposite. Besides, there's a very competitive side to me, so it's best to do something with no existing reference point, which I can make for myself." Whereas, to the untrained eye, her work and that of traditional taxidermists are interchangeable (she is a member of the Guild of Taxidermists), Morgan wants her work to "be a bit different", to be recognisably hers.

By the time she first dabbled with taxidermy in 2004, Morgan – who had graduated in English from Queen Mary, University of London two years earlier – was already very much immersed in the east-London art scene. "I was running the Electric Showroom bar in Shoreditch, where the Young British Artists would hang out; I was constantly surrounded by these artistic people who were doing really well," she explains. "I think that sort of thing can either galvanise you or it can cripple you." In this instance it had an empowering effect: "I started to wonder: what do I need to do? What is there for me?"

For a long time, she'd been in a rut. She'd hated university – "when I arrived there, my friend had just died [of a heroin overdose], my parents had just split up, and the people I met seemed to have been let out of a cage. They were only interested in going out, getting wasted and shagging every night. Whereas I was more mature; I'd been going out with men in London since I was 16 years old." The three-month journalism course at London College of Printing which followed also held little promise – she couldn't handle an office environment.

Then, one summer's day six years ago, she mentioned to an artist friend across the bar that she'd like a piece of taxidermy to furnish her flat. The friend suggested that she try to make one herself. And so, after some research, Morgan tracked down a taxidermist working on the outskirts of Edinburgh, by the name of George Jamieson, who offered lessons: "For £150, I'd get a day's tutorial and get to keep the bird at the end of it; it was even cheaper than buying one," she says. The next evening, Morgan took the train to Edinburgh straight from work, staying the night with a friend in town and leaving for class at 7.30am. At 5.30pm, she left Jamieson's house, stuffed pigeon under arm, and hasn't looked back.

From that moment on, when she wasn't managing the bar, Morgan could be found holed up in the upstairs flat, carefully skinning, gutting and stitching back together whatever creatures she could lay her hands on – be they the gifts of roadkill or, in one instance, a dog found in rigor mortis in a nearby park by a friend. She enjoyed the process from day one: "If the creature's fresh, it's a pleasure to do; the skin just peels away from the body."

A few months after that first lesson – one of just two she's ever had – having made enough pieces to fill her flat and to give out as presents to friends, she received her first commission. It was to create a couple of pieces for display at the launch of a new restaurant called Bistrotheque. She came up with a series of stuffed animals in bell-jars (a magpie with a jewel in its beak, some chicks perched on a miniature coffin...) which the restaurant ended up buying for £350 each.

Morgan had expected the restaurant opening to be a modest affair, but "half the art world turned up and I ended up being interviewed by a naked woman for Naked News [a website which advertises itself as "the only program of its kind in the world that has real news, sports, entertainment and infotainment programs delivered by a roster of all-nude, attractive and intelligent women"].

As if the evening wasn't surreal enough, Morgan was soon approached by Banksy, although she didn't know who she was talking to at the time. Banksy was extremely curious about her work and asked her how much she'd sell one of her pieces for: "I had no idea what to say so I plucked the figure £900 from this air." A few months down the line, Morgan bumped into Banksy again – this time while she was exhibiting at Zoo Art Fair in 2005 – and agreed to make something for his show, Santa's Ghetto. She showed a bell-jar filled with two birds perched on a crucifix and bedecked with lights. Soon the demand for her work was such that Morgan had to quit her job to have enough time to make it all. Today, she says, she still feels like something of an impostor, as if she "fell into this role by accident". She's still reticent to describe herself as "an artist".

The facts speaks otherwise. Today Morgan can command as much as £100,000 for a piece. As well as wooing the London gallery scene, she also has a work on loan to Scott's restaurant in London for five years, in return for endless free food and wine there and at The Ivy and La Caprice for the same period. Not a deal to be sniffed at. As you'd expect, Morgan and her boyfriend, one of the original YBAs , Mat Collishaw, take regular advantage of the arrangement. "I'm pretty anti-social when I'm not socialising", she explains, "but when I go out I like to have a really good meal and get very drunk." Like the true heiress to Hirst, she usually ends up at the Groucho Club – but only ever at weekends. "I don't drink when I'm working."

Her craft requires full concentration. To make each bird, Morgan demonstrates, making marks on a piece of paper, she lays the creature on its back, makes a careful incision along the chest and peels back the skin. Once this is done, she disconnects the bones and turns the skin over the creature's head, peeling the whole thing inside out. "All the yellow fat has to be removed, the skull cleaned out and any brain remnants scraped away, using a scalpel". Any uncooperative bits can be prised away later using tweezers. Finally, the body is cut off at the neck, and a bound-straw or hemp replica is made to replace it; the skin is then pulled back over the replacement body and stitched up again: "Just like that."

If there's one thing Morgan hadn't anticipated from her largely self-taught craft, she concludes, running a hand down Trotsky's spine, it is how much she's learnt about "biology and lifeforms". "I may not know the names of individual body parts," she says, pulling gently on the skin around the dog's neck, "but I have developed a second understanding of bodies." Like now, she adds: "It's as if I can feel under his skin, I know his whole physique, I know exactly what he looks like from the inside out." With that, almost without a sound, Trotsky slinks off the sofa and settles at the other side of the room, at the foot of one of the freezers.

Polly Morgan: Psychopomps, Haunch of Venison, London W1 (020-7495 5050; 21 July to 25 September

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