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The Art Of Taxidermy English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5426 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Lastly I will be looking at one of the most influential taxidermist of this era; Walter Potter and his approach towards this art, analyzing key work such as 'The Kittens' Tea Party' will help set a grounding in what has been done during this time period and will help compare and contrast what contemporary artists are doing in taxidermy. Helping argue this case I will analyze three contemporary artist's work.

Firstly looking at Damien Hirst, an artist who does not directly use taxidermy within his work but uses methods of preservation, will help understand the way in which aspects of taxidermy are being adapted in contemporary art and whether it is significant.

Secondly looking at Polly Morgan, a fully qualified taxidermist and artist, will help realize what contemporary taxidermy work is being made. By comparing the way she uses traditional and contemporary elements within her work. Also by analyzing key work such as 'Departures' (2009), it will help identify Morgan's thought process and methods of working. In addition comparing similarities to Walter Potter's work will argue what advances modern day taxidermy has developed compared to the Victorian era and whether it had an influence.

looking at David Shrigley's work and the advances he is making within this fi.

Lastly an interview with George Jamieson, a modern day traditional taxidermist will help understand what importance taxidermy has in being used in contemporary art and whether it is suited.


The word taxidermy derives from Greek; 'arranging or preparation skin'. It is the art form in which a taxidermist stuffs and mounts dead animals skin, creating a realistic representation of that specimen by presenting it to resemble its naturalistic pose from when it was still alive. Taxidermy can be applied to most vertebrate species of animals. The origin of this craft is uncertain. However, taxidermy has been around for many centuries within a number of civilizations. Looking back to when man first began to hunt. Using tool such as:

'The rude flint knives and scrapers found in such caves of Dordogne and many other places [1] '

It is evident that early man had a basic knowledge of how to treat and dress skins. Using such skins and pelts for clothes, tools and ceremonies man has always relied upon and used animals for their survival. Although just skinning animals is not what is classed as taxidermy it is evident that this is the earliest starting point of what became the first 'taxidermist'. However, preservation techniques did not evolve so rapidly and it is interesting to see how different societies adopted their own techniques throughout history in tanning skins and embalming the bodies of the dead [2] .

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For example the Inca Empire, dating back to the early 13th century, used to bring their dead to high mountains situated in Peru leaving them to dry out in the cold altitudes, which would help preserve the bodies. The bodies would be kept in households for a long period of time before burial or performing a ceremony [3] . This is a very basic way of preserving the dead by letting natural salts and minerals dry out the skin.

However there were a number of different societies that practised this technique throughout history. It is evident that the Ancient Egyptians were the first to use sophisticated techniques of embalming animals and humans similar to the Incas. The Egyptians used their surroundings to help aid the process of preserving their dead. By burying their dead in small pits in the desert the heat and sand would effectively help dry out the skin [4] , which would help them, maintain their life like quality. However the stereotypical 'mummy' image we associate with the Egyptians progressed over many centuries, as they experimented with different ways in preserving the dead. The process of mummification took around 70 days to complete:

" After removing the internal organs, the body was washed inside and out with astringent palm wine and then filled with pounded aromatics such as myrrh, cassia and cinnamon. The body was then kept covered in natron, a type of salt mined from the dry lake beds near the Nile River which accelerated the dehydration of the body. After a period of several months, the body was washed again and wrapped with bands of fine linen smeared on inside with gum, which the Egyptians used instead of glue allowing the skin and muscles to become rigid."

It was only on important people such as Pharos and Nobles that mummification was practised on; with this the Egyptians used to preserve many of their animals in the same process, such as cats, dogs and various birds.

It seems odd why the Egyptians would take so much time and effort to mummify their rulers but they believed that preserving the bodies after death would allow them into the afterlife [5] . It is apparent that many cultures preserved their dead for a number of different reasons and uses whether it be religious or sacrificial. However with mummification being one of the only advanced techniques at this time to prevent the decay of dead bodies it cannot be considered as taxidermy as the technique solely evolves the drying of bodies compared to removing and stuffing skins. Yet this is evidence as the early stages and first steps towards the start of the art of taxidermy. During the next few centuries preservation methods improved drastically and the interest in preserving human bodies became less apparent.

Victorian Taxidermy

It is evident that the abundance and increase of practising taxidermists in Britain rose during the 16th - 19th centuries with the hunters of that time sparking a revelation in showcasing animals as trophies; Victorian taxidermy was born. The sudden fashionable craze within the general public at this time meant that everyone wanted specimens either dead or alive. Taxidermy was now being used in all aspects of Victorian life from the décor of rooms to fashion. Although taxidermy became highly fashionable during this era there are a number of different factors that helped contribute towards the advance in techniques within this craft. The way in which the qualities of skins were being treated was still experimental and little is known of the beginnings of stuffing and mounting animals and displaying them as ornaments, yet the advances made during this time where still far from perfect. Similar to the Egyptians, taxidermists at this time were experimenting with a number of different ways in trying to dry the skins of the animal; the import of foreign spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves helped the development within this field [6] .

A) Good vs. Bad Practice

However one of the main factors in the development of taxidermy during this era was due to the education of the practisting taxidermists. During this time there was a lot of bizarre and amateur work being created by people who did not have any understanding about the craft. Like any craft or trade a person would benefit from a four year training to help them learn and understand all the key factors of this intricate art [7] . As a taxidermist the final result of the stuffed specimen is not enough to deem his of master of their trade. To be a great taxidermist you cannot be just be great at stuffing yet have no prior knowledge of the muscular structure or form of the animal. An expert taxidermist must learn and use an abundance of skills in their practice:

'A solid knowledge of modelling and form; a good understanding of biology; a strong grounding in anatomical structure; the study of the skeleton; the habits of the animals in nature such as feeding, breeding and they way in which they conduct their young; location of habitat and plantation.'

Using this abundance of knowledge a taxidermist must also have a strong hand at drawing and sculpting; making study drawings of specimens in there natural habitat will help the taxidermist observe a number of poses which he/she could replicate. This also helps the taxidermist understand the way in which the specimen reacts to different elements within its surrounding environment. An impatient taxidermist may never achieve the perfection this art can give. It is clear by the range of skills that the artist must perfect that taxidermy is an art and that many people do not realize or give little appreciation to what is needed to create such compelling work.

However it is evident that the abundance of ill-educated taxidermists creating work will not last, as bad taxidermy is easily recognizable and can be due to a number of different factors, such as the way in which the animal lacks its biological form or that the specimen has distress cracks in the skin due to bad practice of the treating of the skin. Bad and botched taxidermy cannot always be so obvious, infestation and decay can occur which manifest from the inside of the stuffed specimens, this is mainly due to insects [8] . Commonly moths, cockroaches and various beetles destroy and attack the skin. This again is due to the way in which the skins are treated, dried and mounted. An untrained hand with no prior knowledge of taxidermy may miss or leave parts of fat or muscle when skinning the specimen. This attracts these unwanted guests as the tissue will eventually start to rot and decay. Moths are attracted to certain wools due to their larvae eating the proteins in hair shafts resulting in many so-called taxidermists encountering infestation problems:

"In 1892 a study was exhibited in which an owl figured; the painting was simply perfect and learned- but the bird! A ragged, moth-eaten old specimen, stuffed by some incompetent hand; and the artist, as artists constantly do, failed to recognize the utter atrocity of the lines of form." [9] 

With a majority of well-trained taxidermists producing good work the cause for this bad practice to evolve can be due to the rise in popularity within taxidermy during the nineteenth century as it is hard to expect the quality of work to improve as the demand for more and more taxidermy increases. The Director of the Natural History Museum, London commented in 1881 that:

"I cannot refrain from saying a word upon the sadly-neglected art of taxidermy, which continues to fill the cases of most of our museums with wretched and repulsive caricatures of mammals and birds, out of all natural proportions, shrunken here and bloated there, and in attitudes absolutely impossible for the creatures to have assumed while alive." [10] 

B) Natural History Museums

Taxidermy can be seen in a number of different uses ranging from museum dioramas, medical studies, fashion and gamesmanship, as with the British Empire expanding rapidly at this time, explorers such as Watson Perrygo (taxidermist and field collector) were employed to work for the British Museum. Many of these men would go on collecting expeditions and hunts all round the world to bring back foreign and rare specimens to taxidermise and then showcase in these museums [11] . New and exotic animals such as rhinos and zebra meant that British taxidermists had to learn and adapt their techniques to preserve these animals, yet the sudden advances and demand within this practice can be down to man's urge to collect and catalogue. Helping this develop was the start and setting up of the Natural History Museum, which owes much to the responsibility of Sir Hans Sloane, an eighteenth-century collector. Sloane's earliest collecting saw that he had up to over 80,000 different items, ranging from a large number of foreign taxidermy specimens to a vast library of rare books, fossils and oddities. Sir Hans collection was the largest throughout Europe at this time; hence with his death in 1753, the Government came forward and bought his entire collection as they agreed that it should stay intact. This abundance of unusual artifaces helped lay the foundations for the beginnings of the Natural History Museum which opened it door to the general public in 1759.

Natural History museums have now been set up around the world helping increase the amount of taxidermy being produced, yet it can be said that taxidermy is uncommon nowadays as most of these early works and dioramas are still on display and have not been replaced with modern examples. It is sad to say that during this era, nature was now seen as a commodity and fashion item and for most people the relationship between animal and man became distorted as the public could only study these rare specimens within the confines of these museums enabled by the skill of taxidermy.

Legislation and The Guild Of Taxidermy

No legislation or protection for wildlife was put in place during this time period; hence the ways in which Victorian taxidermists collected their specimens can be deemed barbaric compared to modern standards. Methods of examining many flying or dangerous specimens such as lions or vultures would be shoot first study afterwards. This had drastic effect on many species and is reflected in modern times as many of these species are threatened with extinction and are now being protected. To combat this, new laws and legislations are being protecting our wildlife and things such as The Guild of Taxidermy have now been created. George Jamieson, a modern day taxidermist in Scotland, set up The Guild of Taxidermists in 1976 to help improve the standard and the way taxidermy was being conducted. George Jamieson is at the frontline of modern day taxidermy within Scotland. Edinburgh born Jamison has been working within this practice since 1974, with commissioned pieces of his work being featured in Natural History Museums, hotels and television adverts, such as Irn-Bru and Famous Grouse Whisky. George Jamieson is a well-respected taxidermist and by 1982 this scheme had been adapted and taken on at nation-wide level. The Guild of Taxidermists has helped the standard of taxidermy become recognized within the UK with stricter and tighter laws and legislations on what type of specimens can and cannot be stuffed and mounted. This has effectively helped wildlife and helped taxidermists identity where their specimens have come from. For example animals that die from natural causes or road casualties can be mounted compared to specimens that are hunted or poached. [12] Illegal ways of hunting and capturing animals will never die out yet it is reassuring that many practising taxidermists are taking on this scheme in order to protect our wildlife.

C) Walter Potter

Leading taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918) was one of the pioneers in changing the macabre nature taxidermy was associated with; by introducing more humorous elements, by creating his own style known as anthropomorphic taxidermy; meaning that the specimens were now made to represent and display human behavior, compared to the traditional style which mimics its naturalistic pose. Potter achieved this by posing his specimens in homemade dioramas that helped distance the specimen, as they did not have any recognizable natural characteristics that the viewer could identify. As such Potter would dress up his specimens in tiny human clothes, create miniature props and go to great lengths to create outstanding detail within his dioramas. For example kittens were dressed in their Sunday best and frogs and toads would play croquet; this helped to alienate and detract from the natural beauty of the animal as the way Potter represented his specimens bewildered the viewer. Potter's work was one of the first to feature taxidermy that mimicked human characteristics and behavior, this helped changed the direction taxidermy was going in and showed a new light In the way of working which many followed.

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Analyzing the work "The Kitten's Tea Party", 'fig1', is one of Potters most well known pieces. The display depicts seventeen taxidermise kittens surrounding an over sized dinner table packed with all sorts of objects, such as tiny china plates, cake and sandwiches, and kittens pouring tea for each other. The attention to detail within Potter's displays helps submerge the viewer in Potters surrealist world and helps the view forget that the subject matter is stuffed dead kittens and treat the diorama as any other tea party or a day-to-day activity the viewer would partake in. This is what makes Potters work so powerful.

Derek Hudson, author of 'Animal Fantasy: The Taxidermist of Bramber' gives us an insight of what Potters bizarre Museum was like:

"The first impression of the interior of the museum is a glorious Victorian jumble of odds-and-ends. Stuffed birds and animals abound, including a number of freaks. There is even an enormous Coypu rat, forty inches long, which was shot on a bank of the river Adur, near Bramber; as it is a native of South America, the supposition is that it disembarked from a boat carrying timber at Shoreham, and was exploring the neighborhood. An alarming apparition! But I soon forgot the rat in the contemplation of some old musical instruments, a length of telephone cable, an albatross, a Siamese war saddle, butterflies, beetles, boomerangs, and the front foot of an Indian elephant made into a waste-paper basket and twelve engravings of the Wandering Jew by Gustave Dore. As the eye accustomed itself to the rich, inconsequential mixture, the major works of Walter Potter- about a dozen of them, in their show cases- gradually detached themselves from their surroundings. I became aware of a whole new world of fantasy, in which kittens played croquet with fastidious enjoyment, squirrels gravely drank wine and ate nuts, and rabbits frowned over their slates in the village school."

Again this helps us envision what Potter's collection must have been like, filled full of unusual and curious dioramas and cases, such as toads playing leapfrog and going to the barbers and where rabbits and kittens would put their uniforms on and go to school or even have tea parties. The way in which Potter gives the subject matter so much life creates undertones of subtle humor giving the pieces the popularity they do. Potter was one of the first and only people producing taxidermy like this at the time and his collection expanded so significantly that he required a special building to be constructed to hold the majority of his work [13] . The different approach Potter had in creating his work showed a huge contrast to what was being displayed at the Natural History Museum. This helped gain popularity as his work stood out considerably compared to what traditional taxidermists were creating at this time. Potter, although a very well traveled man, lived and constructed most of his displays in the villages of Bramber and Steynin West Sussex. They attracted more than 30,000 visitors each year and with Potter's death in 1918, his collection was passed down to his daughter and subsequently to his grandson. His grandson kept his Bramber museum open for many years and it became a famous tourist attraction. [14] It is unusual to see that Potters collection is one of the only existing examples of a complete Victorian Museum. Sadly Potter's collection was auctioned in 2003 and it is unlikely to ever be re-assembled. It sparked a lot of interest among collectors and taxidermists [15] with famous works such as, 'The Kitten's Wedding' going for £21,150. One of the biggest contemporary artists Damien Hirst, who also works with preserving animals, placed a bid for the entire collection at £1million. Hirst wrote to The Guardian saying:

" I've offered £1million and to pay for the cost of the auctioneer's catalogue- just for them to take if off the market and keep the collection intact- but apparently, the auction has to go ahead. It is a tragedy" [16] 

As time progressed the skilled art form of taxidermy started dying out and became outdated. However, within contemporary art taxidermy is now being adapted and used in a variety of different ways.

Taxidermy in contemporary art

Although taxidermy is not as popular as it was during the Victorian era it has now digressed into the art world; does it still holds its own as a serious art form? The transition from museums to gallery is interesting to address. With the different approaches artists are taking in rebirthing this dying art. Certain elements of taxidermy are being used in contemporary art with artists such as Damien Hirst, Polly Morgan and David Shirgley and a number of others either using dead animals, preservation techniques or taxidermy within their work. The roots of this historic practice are now being used in modern context, but is it any different to what Walter Potter and other artists where doing many years before?

Damien Hirst

It is interesting to identify a contemporary artist such as Damien Hirst wanting to keep Potters collection intact. Hirst works in a number of different practices ranging from drawing and painting to large-scale installation and sculptures. The majority of Hirst's work is similar to taxidermy and deals with the relationship between art, life and death. Hirst wrote that:

"Art's about life and it can't really be about anything else … there isn't anything else," [17] 

Hirst's fascination with the delicate balance of life and death came to him as a teenager. A friend he knew who worked at Leeds Medical School would make a number of visits to the anatomy department in which where he would draw the cadavers. This digressed into Hirst's work in 1991 when he started introducing and experimenting with dead animals. Although Hirst does not use the art of taxidermy in his work, the way in which he has adapted preserving techniques, (like many before him) helps him change and create something new in this field. Most of the dead animals Hirst uses are preserved with a chemical called formaldehyde which has a number of uses, one being that it slows down the rate of decay dramatically and is ideal for essentially pickling dead body parts or tissues [18] . Hirst's early series of works such as 'zoo of dead animals' created his distinctive style we can recognize today; the use of minimalist steel, glass tanks filled with gallons of formaldehyde solution with some sort of dead animal suspended in the tank. In an interview with Mirta D'Argenzio, Hirst explains his first experiments with formaldehyde:

MA- ' What was your first experience with the animals in formaldehyde? How did you get the idea, and what does it mean to you?'

DH- ' I had envisioned the formaldehyde series. I suddenly realized that I really liked the formaldehyde, the look of the formaldehyde. It had that kind of tragedy that things are falling apart, that kind of arrested decay, but not quiet. I wanted people to think < That shouldn't be in an art gallery> as well as questioning why they are in an art gallery, or thinking that they are in the wrong place. The things in formaldehyde are great, they always look great. I remember things like that from school. In art class at school we always had frogs in jars and things like that. We just used to draw from those and skulls that we had lying around.' [19] 

It is essential to identify that nothing has changed throughout the years of displaying dead animals, as like Potter, Hirst has adapted his own way of working by creating his own style inspired by the things he has encountered such as the frogs in jars in his school art class. The similarities between Potter and Hirst's work are evident. As such, Potter shied away from traditional taxidermy and created his unique bizarre dioramas, in the same way Hirst is pushing the boundaries of what can be done in contemporary art by getting people to question what should and shouldn't belong in an art gallery. It is key to highlight that both of these artists have generated a large public audience, as their approach towards creating their work can be shocking, yet without the traditional elements of taxidermy both artists work would not generate the power it does. This shows how the practice of taxidermy has been able to evolve and adapt for different artists. However with Hirst's worldwide fame he uses an array of different artists and tradesmen to create the majority of his work. Emily Mayer, a very respectable taxidermist, has helped Hirst with some of his most renowned pieces such as 'Away from the Flock' (1994) 'fig.3' Mayer has dabbled in this area of work since she was 12 years old until entering art school as she felt she couldn't express herself through taxidermy and calls herself an 'anti-taxidermist' [20] . Mayer and Hirst have created a number of powerful and surrealist works. Although the final finish of the work is very simplistic the way in which the animals are suspended in the tanks gives the work its impact, as the unbelievable detail of the specimen is intact due to the formaldehyde and the notion that you are looking at a once living creature now suspended in a tank of formaldehyde gives the piece a timeless quality. Using animals like this in Hirst's artwork has meant many animal rights groups have targeted him:

" I had a very strange thing happen to me once, which was with the animal rights people, where I actually contacted them because they stood outside the exhibition and said < Damien Hirst is this, etc. And he kills animals for art>. I contacted them and said, < I don't kill animals for art. We are making a point of getting already dead things. We don't kill them for art; we get things that die naturally>. The people just said < oh look, we don't care really. And we were like And they said < It doesn't matter. We have to come and picket your exhibitions because we need the attention; we have to get the publicity> It is quite scary when you think about it because the people who follow them can be pretty dangerous and will believe them." [21] 

Artists will always try and push the boundaries of what can and cannot be done within art, with either the subject matter or message they are trying to convey. Yet artists will always use animals in art, it is the way in which they conduct themselves with using such delicate subject matter. Hirst crosses this fine line and it is interesting to see how he has adapted this process of preserving by showing beauty in something that is already dead, the fundamental elements of what taxidermy is trying to achieve. Although Hirst's work does not consist of taxidermy it cannot be ruled out as it shows that the art form can be adapted to new ways of working and this has a significant effect on this practice.

B) Polly Morgan

Polly Morgan is at the front line of rebirthing this art form. Morgan is a fully qualified taxidermist:

'Polly Morgan is a member of the Guild of Taxidermists, which adheres to and promotes the law pertaining to taxidermy, and keeps a detailed log of all animals in stock. All taxidermised animals are either road casualties or have been donated to the artist by pet owners and vets after natural or unpreventable deaths' [22] 

Being brought up in rural Oxford, Morgan at an early age was surrounded and fascinated by animals. With this Morgan explains that she quickly got to grips with the concept of death at around the age of three and she used to collect the fur and feathers that had fallen off many animals and keep dead chicks and mice in match box cases:

"My mother explained that if I didn't bury them they would rot. So the little burials began." [23] 

Morgan tried a number of career paths but her adolescent love and interest of animals lead her to lead the intricate art form of taxidermy. Taught under the fully qualified guilded taxidermist, George Jamieson, Morgan's work follows the traditional elements and skills that taxidermy teaches but Morgan displays her specimens within a contemporary setting. As such Morgan does not want to mimic the natural habitat of the animal but to display them in unexpected scenery such as the work of Potter. This helps explore the observation between beauty and mortality and the relationship we share with animals. It is interesting to see the traditional and contemporary mix-up in Morgan's work:

"I started off learning taxidermy with no particular intention to become an artist but neither did I want to be a traditional taxidermist, mounting pets or hunting trophies. I suppose having both old-fashioned and contemporary elements makes it out; the taxidermy and the bell jars could be antique yet the cast balloons and the polished telephone receivers have a more Pop influence." [24] 

It is this that Morgan, like Hirst, wants to create; something outwith the boundaries of taxidermy. However Morgan explains that she has no interest in creating work like Potter. Although his work was well respected in his era it is not original by modern standards and Morgan expresses her dislike of 'rogue taxidermy' the art of chopping and changing parts of species to create beasts and mythical creatures such as mermaids and dragons:

"Walter Potter's taxidermy wasn't technically skilled, but he became quite legendary because he made these kitsch, outlandish displays; a kitten's wedding where they are all dressed in finery and a tea party where they are all huddled around a table, drinking out little china cups. He would also taxidermy freak animals, such as chickens with four legs or l


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