My fascination for taxidermy began when I passed a shop called Get Stuffed on Essex Road. I was drawn in by a large polar bear at the window; stopping to look, I stared in awe at the magnificent beast, as well as the vast variety of animals the shop showcased.
Astounded by the craftsmanship and the beauty of the creatures, I was amazed at how alive they looked. I longed to reach out and touch them – only their cold, absent eyes gave away the fact that they’d died a long time ago.
Since that day, I’ve had an interest in taxidermy and wanted to learn the secrets of the craft. Unsure of how to get into the art form, I instead admired the skill from a distance. From exhibitions to decorations of mounted deer–heads in friends’ houses, I could only marvel at the form from afar.
“We were told to massage the dead mice with our hands to warm them up, as they were cold from being out of the freezer.”
Preserving animals was an ancient technique practiced by the Egyptians. Later, it became a popular past–time for the Victorians who lived in what some describe as the golden age of taxidermy. By the late 19th century, taxidermy had branched out to anthropomorphise art, which soon became an art statement. Taxidermy still remains controversial and has received mixed reviews across the board.
It’s hard to describe the excitement I felt after stumbling across a taxidermy class at Islington Arts Factory. Fingers itching, I immediately signed up. £52 for a lesson to create an anthropomorphic mouse was steep, especially for a student, but it was my chance to delve into something that I admired. Finally, I would be able to understand the art of taxidermy.
On arriving, Tonja Grung, our teacher, warmly greeted us and took us up to her studio situated at the Islington Arts Factory. As I entered the tiny studio, the strong smell of dead animal hit me, but I soon grew accustomed to it through the evening.
Stuffed creatures and skeletons of all sizes filled the glass cabinets and shelves at the back of the room. A mood board of owls along with sketches covered the walls. In the middle of the room, a small table covered with newspaper had five white mice laid out, ready for our class. I was about to create my first ever stuffed animal.
While putting on our aprons and latex gloves, Tonja told us that she became a taxidermist after viewing Polly Morgan’s work. Before we started, Tonja emphasised that the mice had not been killed for her. Instead, they had been bought from a pet store that would have used them to feed snakes. The ethical disclaimer out the way, we finally began.
First of all, we were told to massage the dead mice with our hands to warm them up, as they were still cold from the freezer. Then, we made the first incision down the length of the belly. There were “ooos” and “ahhs” as we sliced away the skin from the flesh. One woman accidentally stuck her knife in too deeply, revealing intestines and organs that slid out over her workbench. Although others didn’t hide their disgust, this didn’t bother me in the least. As a biology student, I was the one who was always ready to get my hands stuck in during dissection classes.
After carefully removing the skin with our hands and the scalpel, we finally separated the hide from the body. For me, the most difficult part was detaching the tail, which required a lot of patience as – if it wasn’t removed properly– the animal would start attracting flies.
Washing the mouse was a strange experience. We had to remove our latex gloves for this and when I came in contact with the mouse I jumped slightly at the sensation it created against my skin.
Next came the stuffing! Using metal wires and cotton strips, we began to create the body we wanted the skin to be draped over. This was a simple process, but actually fitting the skin on the wire was a different matter. We had to feed the metal wire through the arms and legs and then, after this, sew the pelt back together.
I named my finished buddy Victor and displayed him on my mantelpiece. As I write, he is peering at me through his glasses, top hat tipped classily to the side, offering me a rose like a true gentleman. He’s a cute little bugger.
Taxidermy requires plenty of concentration and perseverance – our class lasted four and a half hours. I enjoyed every moment of it and overall I found taxidermy strangely soothing and relaxing. It’s similar to painting, playing an instrument or knitting; a satisfying, calming past-time. Suffice to say, I’m looking forward to the next lesson. Maybe this time, I will choose a squirrel to keep Victor company.
Featured image by Mary Clarke
Slider photography by Jasmine Perkins
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