Underneath Waterloo station, a dog is singing. Or rather, the empty husk of a dog, dangling from the hand of a human, is singing. He’s singing something about the cruelty of breeding and the genetic meddling of man, but he’s being upstaged by his own decaying body. Parts of his innards are flying out into the laps of the front row of his audience. His scrunched face is contorting and his bulbous eyes are shooting sad and accusatory daggers into the crowd as he sings “How much is that dog you got from Gumtree?” The dog’s bollocks are dangling like clock weights perilously close to one man’s nose.
We’re in the station’s dark, damp Victorian underbelly, in a performance space known as The Vaults, and we’re watching artist Charlie Tuesday Gates perform a puppet show using dead animals that she brands “a cross between The X Factor and Pet Rescue”.
Although Gates shirks the tag, she’s one of the more high-profile figures in a new wave of taxidermists. Her musical performance, described as an “animalation” and titled “Sing for Your Life”, is part of a solo exhibition called The Museum House of Death, a collection of reappropriated corpses in gloomy tunnels.
Among the shadows lurk numerous stuffed dead things: a bird lurks inside a lampshade in “Deadly Birdshade”; a fox peers out from behind a pair of specs; a lamb unpeels itself from its skin on a video screen.
The most memorable and the most Instagrammed piece of the night is, however, “Pussy Cat”, which combines a dead cat with a cast of you-can-probably-guess-what.
“I put a shout out for vaginas in any state, style or size,” Gates tells me after her show, adding that it was “found at a house clearance. Apparently it was the only thing left. It’s a genuine cast of a genuine vagina. The cat was rescued from the roadside. Half of her sits here; the other half imitates ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch.”
My first contact with Gates is a bit awkward. She’s not a fan of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed posted some photos of her skinning a lamb and she had to leap on to the site to defend herself. “BuzzFeed got hold of some photos of me in my work studio … having a casual Easter,” she says. “They were taken out of context. If people know nothing of me and my working ethos then shock can be a common reaction.”
Shock is Gates’ stock in trade. As a vegan (like many taxidermists), and even just as a decent human, she’s concerned about the way animals are treated by mass farming methods and the cosmetic industry, and a large part of her work is about flagging up her worries through maimed, splayed, and preserved flesh.
In a snap-reaction world where Steven Spielberg can get vilified for hunting dinosaurs, this can cause problems. And while her more extreme art attracts its fair share of vitriol, many of the increasing number of taxidermists and taxidermy artists have experienced similar abuse from animal rights groups and animal lovers in general.
“I’m an animal lover,” she wrote. “I have been a vet nurse, owned various small animals, … saved several kittens with nothing but water, heat, honey and care, and have studied the history of veterinary medicine.
“I find it interesting that it is acceptable to raise millions of animals for food, dress up our dogs and cats in outfits, and take endless pleasure in watching animals act like humans while they are alive – yet making them into pieces of art, set in human poses and activities after they are dead, makes many people squirm.”
Taxidermy as we know it took off in the Victorian era. Ornithologist John Hancock kicked things off at the Great Exhibition of 1851, showcasing his collection of stuffed falcons and herons and igniting a passion for putting a bird on it that eventually extended all the way to Queen Victoria. However, it was a man called Walter Potter who became the art’s pioneering hero.
Potter specialised in anthropomorphic displays – rabbits in school, kittens in frilly knickers, guinea pigs playing croquet – that became blockbuster attractions. After his death in 1918, his museum of curiosities, which featured some 10,000 creatures, gradually lost its lustre, until it was broken up and sold off 10 years ago, despite a £1 million bid from Damien Hirst.
Whatever your take on it, taxidermy is undoubtedly big again. Stuffed heads are staring from bars across London, and the capital is inundated with classes where anyone can join in with a scalpel in one hand and a glass of prosecco in another. You can start off on the small stuff – dissecting mice, rats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters – before graduating on to bigger and more exotic things. Hundreds of £25 mouse-taxidermy kits are flying off the shelves for those that want to tinker at home.
What was once predominantly the preserve of older men in musty corners is being practiced by people much closer to the cradle than the grave. Suddenly, Steve Carell’s mousterpieces in Dinner for Schmucks seem ahead of the curve.
Magpie puts this resurgence in interest down to several factors: a new-found obsession with Victoriana, a healthy pre-occupation with death and resurrection, and a need to draw hands away from smartphones and laptops. “For people who sit in offices all day, there’s something appealing about putting on rubber gloves … and learning a manual skill,” she said recently. Taxidermy evenings are just a new way of socialising, and social networks provide ample opportunity to showcase the resulting creations.
There are not one but two dating sites for taxidermists, Taxidermy Passions and Dead Meet. The latter, run by Carla Valentine of Barts Pathology Museum, caters to the whole death industry, and promises that “taxidermists, crematorium techs, and anatomists should all feel at home”.
Enthusiastic amateurs irk established taxidermists like artist Polly Morgan, who sees classes as ways to fill bars and restaurants. “I think it’s not particularly tasteful to fetishise taxidermy in this way,” she commented. “You see these young women with corpses draped around their necks, almost glorifying and sexualising it.”
As taxidermy’s popularity grows, so does a desire to look at really, really bad taxidermy, and the internet harbours at least three major cataloguers of crap taxidermy, catering to hundreds of thousands of followers. Two of them have book deals, and they have confusingly similar names.
Crappy Taxidermy, which started as a Tumblr five years ago before moving to Facebook, is hitting paper form as Crap Taxidermy in the autumn.
Crap Taxidermy is also the title of a Twitter feed that has proved as popular for its captions as its horrific photos. These were, founder Adam Cornish told BuzzFeed, “an afterthought that proved to be popular”. His book, Much Ado About Stuffing, is out in September.
Newcomer Crap Taxidermy on Facebook doesn’t have a book deal. The owner of the account seems a bit miffed about this, deducing that “apparently I’m too opinionated”.
Kat, the owner of Crappy Taxidermy, explains why she started her blog five years ago: “I was looking for a deer head for my apartment, and I found page after page of things like squirrels holding guns and bottle openers made out of deer butts. It was hilarious and horrifying.”
Since then, she’s catalogued all manner of car-crash artworks from “coffee shops, roadside attractions, natural history museums, and antique stores” across the world. She reckons it’s a universal phenomenon, although “American taxidermists really like using guns as props”. Unlike some of the other curators of crap taxidermy, she owns numerous pieces herself, including a fox, a two-headed rabbit, and “a section from Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ re-enacted with mice”.
These curators of mangled artworks have received as much stick as the taxidermists themselves, and their pages are peppered with outrage. The response from fans is normally the very original “get stuffed”, a riposte repeated endlessly in the comments.
Cornish tweeted his stance: “This feed in no way endorses animal cruelty. I love animals, the joke is in the shoddy workmanship. Now lighten up or piss off.” The owner of the newer Crap Taxidermy Facebook page was equally direct: “I’m sick of people fucking complaining about fuck all. Why like a page about crap taxidermy if it’s going to offend you?”
There is something desperately sad about the shitter end of the taxidermy spectrum; those twisted faces and deformed bodies provoke an initial snigger with an uneasy aftertaste. Fine in small doses, they start to feel all kinds of wrong as the calamities stack up, and sometimes you feel as sorry for the artist behind the abortion as the thing itself.
The undisputed star creation of crap taxidermy is “Stoned Fox”. You may have heard of him, particularly if you live in Russia. “Stoned Fox” began his afterlife with a head in a trap, his bones crushed and his face completely Milibanded. He was sold to London-based taxidermy artist Adele Morse, who put him back together again and posted him on eBay, which is when things went a bit weird.
Someone called DJ Space Dimension Controller posted on his Facebook page that if anyone bothered bidding on it, he’d play a live set at their house. Music promoter Mike Boorman did exactly that, spending £330 on the spaced-out fox, and the DJ duly played a set in Dalston with the stuffed animal.
In the meantime, “Stoned Fox” became a meme in Russia, appearing on photoshopped images that saw him sitting next to Obama and taking the place of Baumgartner. Half of the country was stricken with “Stoned Fox” mania, and Morse and her wonky, furry friend were invited over. She quickly realised that they were massive celebrities.
“It was really surreal,” she tells me in a taxidermy-stuffed bar called The Hunter S in Dalston. “I felt like I went to sleep on the plane there, dreamt for ten days, and woke up in Frankfurt on the way back.
“It wasn’t just that I was well known but the press conference had more journalists than anybody else. It was some kind of record, and it was insane. I would get back to the hotel at night and the TV in the room would be on and every channel had something about the fox.”
“I made public appearances at the Russian equivalent of Argos where 2,000 people showed up. People in the street would ask for my autograph and shout my name. I had an armed guard with a hand gun. We got to go to the VK [Russia’s Facebook] head office and see the highest point in Saint Petersburg, which apparently was a privilege saved for only us and Tom Cruise. One night MTV came on, and it was me in my flat in London on Skype – on MTV!”
The insanity continued – two guys flew a 12-hour round trip from Siberia to see her – but the love affair ended abruptly when certain politicians took umbrage at pictures of the fox chilling with Lenin, and some papers “misquoted” her as saying the fox had the same sad, drunk eyes as Russians. The fox was denounced as “a serious danger to Russia’s youth” that was accompanied by “an unfriendly emissary from England”, and Communist Party representatives demanded Morse dismantled her “vile, Russophobic” exhibition in Saint Petersburg.
“Stoned Fox” is now “in a bin bag in Burnage, going to Edinburgh soon”, while four replicas are scattered across the globe, from New York to Latvia to Moscow.
Morse’s past is full of those stories that occur when you start your days with “I wonder would happen if…”, and she tells them well, with humour as sharp as her fringe and a very British self-deprecation; we talk for hours under the gaze of a honking great bear’s head at the bar. Over numerous white wines, and with a soft Welsh accent, she discusses the roots of her taxidermy, which began when her brother asked her to bring his pet hamster Raven back to life, nine years ago. There’s apparently always a tangible moment when a creature is back in the room.
She now has a fridge full of animals. “It’s rammed,” she laughs. “I have a baby fox, two rhea chicks, a tailless coatimundi, a parrot, various British birds, rabbits, rats, a squirrel, a weasel, and a stoat.” The other fridge, for foodstuffs, has no animals, because, like most taxidermists, she doesn’t eat them.
Morse has seen the taxidermy scene evolve dramatically in the last decade. When she started, the UK Guild of Taxidermists apparently wasn’t interested in welcoming artists, but its stance seems to have softened. While she initially felt shunned by the traditionalists, she now identifies with them more than the influx of newcomers.
“I’m not going to lie – when I see some people selling their attempts on eBay I shudder,” she admits. “I am not saying I was any better with a year’s experience, but I would never have tried to sell those animals! I think all the techniques in the world don’t matter if you don’t have that magic touch that brings something back to life.”
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is not particularly keen on taxidermy. It told BuzzFeed:
“Many animals who end up with a taxidermist – such as those who come from hunters – are violently killed before they’re stuffed and mounted. If an animal dies of natural causes, then PETA is not ethically opposed to preserving his or her body, although it strikes many people as disrespectful to put an animal on display, just as we’d never preserve and display a beloved human family member.”
However, the organisation holds its biggest contempt for rogue taxidermists, those hybrid artists who stitch bits of animals on to bits of other animals to create freakish juxtapositions. People like New Zealand-dwelling Brit Andrew Lancaster, whose possum-headed chicken, duck/rabbit creation, and blackbird-meets-goldfish monstrosity have been greeted with glee and disgust alike.
And fellow New Zealander Lisa Black, whose steampunk creations include a clockwork crocodile and a tortoise full of cogs. And Miami Beach man Enrique Gomez De Molina, who combined a squirrel with a crab and a goat with a skunk, and was sentenced to 20 months in prison for trafficking in endangered wildlife.
PETA says: “Rogue taxidermy is a morbid and disrespectful hobby – like patching a bit of your dead grandmother’s foot on to the head of a stranger who was hit by a car because you feel like it.” Morse agrees, asking in semi-earnestness, “What if the animals wouldn’t have liked each other in real life?”
She gets her supplies from a variety of places. “I mainly pick up frozen animals from pet shops, where they are pet feed for the reptiles,” she tells me. “I also know butchers that will keep the skin on for me – rabbits, hares, and squirrels. I can also eat them after, so in this case nothing is wasted.” She’s also friendly with a lady who breeds cats, and passes on the kittens that die of natural causes between the three- and five-week mark.
Sutton is heavily inspired by Walter Potter, and tries to make her pieces look like they date from his period. There are a lot of miniature objects involved, and she tries “to create something more interesting than just a mouse in a top hat”. Most of her pieces have been sold but can be recreated.
Her classes are hugely popular, and she sees a range of people come in for a tinker. “While I get all sorts of age groups, a lot of girls seem to like them,” she says. “I think it’s thought of as another version of a craft, so girls feel more comfortable with the stuffing and sewing, like you would a doll.”
The renewed popularity of taxidermy has its downsides, even aside from the internet hate. Sutton says the hobby “contributes to hunting still”, and she’s noticed that within certain taxidermy circles, illegal pieces are appearing on the market again. “New dealers are buying in stock, and they don’t have the appropriate paperwork. Some claim they are pre-1947 [and so pre-date a law requiring a license] but they are obviously newer.”
Back in the early 00s there was a raft of stories about organised crime gangs cashing in on the market for rare animals. The owner of Get Stuffed in Islington, Robert Sclare, meanwhile, was jailed for forging documents allowing him to trade in rare and threatened species.
The menagerie hauled from his shop included a week-old tiger cub, a leopard, a green turtle, a black panther, some gorilla skulls, a chimpanzee, a grey wolf, and 21 birds of prey. At the time, Stuart Chapman of the World Wildlife Fund said that entering the shop was like “walking into an animal house of horrors”. Sclare also showed one undercover reporter a 14-week foetus, a human head, and an amputated hand.
As anyone who’s peered out of the window of the 341 at its carnival of death knows, Get Stuffed is still going strong. You can browse its tasteful dog rugs, tables made from elephant legs, and baby skeletons on its site. Access to the actual store is by appointment only, though, and Morse had a raging argument with the guy who runs it.
“He basically insinuated I couldn’t afford anything in the shop,” she remembers. “I suspect maybe he thought – as a lot of people do – that I’m some hipster idiot who wanted to Instagram the giraffe.”