Third-year AHVS student Henrietta Scrope writes about her hands-on experience with taxidermy ……….
“This summer I took a taxidermy course. Unusual, I know, but it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
For anyone who doesn’t know, taxidermy is the stuffing of animals. Of course, all reputable taxidermist will only use animals that are ethically sourced – most are road kill or have died from natural causes. I had been thinking about taxidermy for a while as an interesting art form – it has a long and fascinating history starting from the need to preserve natural history specimens brought back on ships from exotic lands during the Age of Exploration. For the Victorians it became a decorative art – no home was complete without a mouse dressed in a waistcoat partaking in a mock tea-party. For a long time since then it has been more commonly associated with hunting trophies or museum specimens, but a revival is taking place, with contemporary artists taking up the practice as an unconventional sculptural form.
After two years studying History of Art I missed the hands-on immediacy of practical art that I enjoyed during my A Level textiles course and I was keen to get some experience in a practical arts discipline as a possible career path. I booked a two-day course in London and turned up excited and a little nervous.
As I see it, the body is merely a vessel for life – once the animal is dead fur and flesh are simply materials, just as charcoal is only dead wood. As such I didn’t find it uncomfortable when I was handed a scalpel and shown how to cut down my rabbit’s body, from the chest to the stomach. As long as you avoid piercing the internal sack which holds all of the organs, the preparation of the body is actually remarkably blood-free and odour-less. All internal matter is removed except for bones in the feet and the skull – I definitely felt lucky not to be squeamish when using a brain scoop (yes, that’s its official name) to remove the eyeballs and the brain matter – before the skin is washed, tanned and dried. The skin is then left to dry whilst you recreate the body with wood-wool and wire. The (now fluffy) hide is then stretched over the artificial body and sewn up with a normal needle and thread. Glass balls are glued into the eye-sockets with clay and any final touch-ups made to the fur. It is still possible at this point to reposition the animal, which takes up to two weeks to fully set.
It is a time-consuming and intensive practice but very satisfying. It requires knowledge of the anatomy and study of the individual specimen to create a realistic and dignified mount, and no doubt experience is really all-important in this line of work. However, I was surprised by accessibility of the everyday items used – fairy liquid to wash the skin, a hairdryer to dry it and garden string to bind the new body structure. Really, the main materials are a scalpel and the various preservative solutions used to stop any areas of cartilage remaining from rotting.
I will certainly continue taxidermy as a hobby and perhaps, when it comes to the end of this year, as a potential career. I think it is important for Art History students who do not necessarily want to follow an academic path after university to think about practical arts courses or work experiences, whether they be in painting or print conservation, art installation or even crafts techniques. I would particularly recommend exploring alternative practices before finishing your degree as it may influence your choice of dissertation topic – I have decided to do mine on taxidermy as a contemporary art form. Ultimately, you don’t know where a course might take you but it will teach you more about what you do or don’t want from a career and it will certainly give you something extra to talk about during interviews!”