Why taxidermy is enjoying a 21st century renaissance
It may seem like a rather macabre pastime, but taxidermy, the art of stuffing animals, is still alive. The craft has distinctly Victorian overtones, but thanks to an organic trend that has permeated interior design and a series of celebrity endorsements, taxidermy is enjoying a 21st century resurgence.
In Brooklyn, New York, taxidermy is taking on a life of its own, while London hipster havens Shoreditch and Bethnal Green are spearheading the British revival. Mounted animals and stuffed rodents that resemble Sylvanian families have become must have decorations for any trendy gastro-pub or restaurant. Taxidermy lessons have also become incredibly popular with artsy amateurs keen to jump aboard the bandwagon.
The centuries-old tradition has enjoyed an extraordinary comeback and is now at the cutting edge of contemporary art, but why are so many people keen to master this grisly hobby?
Taxidermy is flourishing despite its controversial history
Taxidermy dates back to 16th century Europe when explorers would bring back previously unknown species to be preserved in a wealthy collector’s “cabinet of curiosities”. Preventing these specimens from decomposing became an almost impossible challenge until avian collector Jean-Baptist Bécœur developed an arsenical soap that helped to keep them in pristine condition. Bécœur’s invention lead to a golden age of taxidermy that spanned from the 1800s through to the dawn of World War I.
Before World War I, taxidermy was often the closest scientists and naturalists would come to encountering particular species. However, the turn of the 20th century brought the age of amateur photography and a new way of documenting wildlife. Stuffed birds that had once adorned mantelpieces were replaced by much cheaper photographs.
As the 20th century progressed, the illegal ivory and fur trade became the prime perpetrator for the declining numbers of African species. Big game hunting consequently became much less socially acceptable and many governments passed wildlife conservation acts.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and a new wave of taxidermists are fuelling the rebirth of the craft, albeit with far more moral awareness and operating under strict regulations regarding which specimens can be used.
Anthropomorphic taxidermy has turned upcycling into an art form
Modern taxidermy ensures all animals are ethically sourced, meaning no animals are harmed for the purposes of taxidermy. The animals used are usually roadkill or have died of natural causes. Taxidermists must also be a member of the Guild of Taxidermists and registered with Natural England. To work with deceased protected species, the taxidermist must also apply for a special license.
In an interview with digital video agency TellyJuice, London taxidermist Lindsay Jamieson discusses why many people see taxidermy as a form of upcycling. She also explains how a beautiful piece of art can be created and admired out of something that is otherwise going to go to waste.
A widely popular branch of the craft is anthropomorphic taxidermy which involves displaying stuffed animals in a manner that endows it with human characteristics.
Pablo Picasso once defined art as a lie that makes us realise truth. Anthropomorphic taxidermy is essentially a lie – mice do not parade around masquerade balls wearing pearl necklaces, nor do foxes sport flat caps and monocles, but such artistic creations allow us to view the human condition with empathetic poignancy.
For instance, Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark forces us to realise the unavoidable and egalitarian fact of death, while the work of Korean hyperrealist Young-Sung Kim criticises how society’s values are rooted in commerce with little regard for the natural. In taxidermy, animals adorned in expensive jewellery makes the viewer question their own value once deceased.
Taxidermy has managed to shrug off the unsavoury and unethical image that lead to its mid 20th century demise. No longer is it associated with moth-eaten trophy kills owned by the eccentric or ostentatious. It is instead more closely linked to thought-provoking pieces of art that actually challenge human attitudes towards other living creatures.
The renewed enthusiasm for a discipline once thought dead perhaps comes from the public understanding that, with a new wave of ethically-sound taxidermists, no animals were harmed in the process.