Alexis Turner has been collecting and dealing taxidermy specimens for the better part of 20 years. In that time, the owner of London Taxidermy has seen the art and industry of preserved animals go from niche market to full-on pop culture phenom. But how, exactly, did an aristocratic indulgence and erstwhile museum prop end up in lingerie ads, Damien Hirst installations, and hipster bars?
“It was a gradual thing,” Turner tells Co.Design of this era's embrace of the dead animal aesthetic. “It slowly became fashionable, probably as a result of the increased interest from artists and designers as well as a greater understanding about its background.”
The journey is well documented in Turner’s survey of the subject that would change his life. Taxidermy, published by Thames & Hudson, is a century-spanning visual history of what Turner defines as “the art of preparing and mounting skins in a lifelike manner.” The volume is flush with colorful images of stuffed mammalia and feathered, winged vertebrates, many, of course, from the author’s own mammoth collection.
The history of taxidermy begins in the mid-18th century, when a French naturalist developed an arsenic-based soap (better known as arsenic paste) that proved capable of preserving recently deceased animals. From there, newer methods and chemical concoctions emerged as the admittedly macabre practice spread from educational departments and museum halls into plush trophy rooms and salons.
Perhaps more than any other player, the Victorians fundamentally shaped our perception of taxidermy. If you’re looking for proof, just comb through the last decade of cultural ephemera, neatly presented by Turner through fashion spreads, blockbuster art shows, and the like.
What has changed in the last 150 years of preserving beasts is the means by which they are procured. Contemporary taxidermy, like contemporary dining, calls for subjects that have been “ethically sourced” (the exact meaning of which is naturally, purposefully vague). But as Turner points out in the text, the Victorians—and it could be said, their colonial successors—were, by comparison, emphatically bloodthirsty for animals to fill their collections. In one passage, Turner cites hunters shooting 21 polar bears dead on a speedy expedition to the Arctic. Elsewhere, he references an Indian taxidermy company that, before its closing more than a decade ago, had processed nearly 43,000 tigers, leopards, and other specimens.
Thankfully, he writes, taxidermy "is now viewed from a more educated perspective.”
Of course, in a book devoted to the practice of mummifying dead things, you’d expect the occasional freaky objets. Taxidermy doesn’t disappoint, with Turner considering the “two headed siamese calves, piglets, and lambs” the strangest pieces he documents. Sounds like good fun.