When the author and artist Errol Fuller bought one of his first pieces of taxidermy in the late 1960s for just over £1, little did he know that the stuffed kiwi would one day fetch £1,500. Back then, taxidermy was the style nadir of both Bauhaus-inspired decor and the uncluttered aesthetic championed by Habitat. Indeed, cases of stuffed animals were often ejected from antiques shops for passers-by to take away.
In recent years, however, a more eclectic style has emerged – one that’s the perfect mise en scène for mounted deer heads, turtle shells and the odd lion. Added to which, the art world’s predilection for deploying taxidermy to philosophical and political ends – from Damien Hirst’s pulseless menagerie to Maurizio Cattelan’s horse jumping into the wall and Polly Morgan’s morbidly chic fox in a champagne coupe – has revived interest in vintage pieces. “Taxidermy is not so much of a taboo today,” says Morgan, who began stuffing her own works of art about seven years ago, mainly using road kill or, occasionally, a deceased pet donated by its owner.
The home of one London collector (who prefers to remain anonymous) is testament to the current penchant for curiosity-shop eclecticism, filled as it is with more than 500 cases of taxidermy. When one house wasn’t enough, he bought his neighbour’s, and then joined the two to create a Gothic palace. A lion, bought from the National History Museum at Eton, stands guard in the double garage, while an 1850 mechanical tableau of toads playing on swings and seesaws by the Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter resides in the library. “It’s a humorous touch in the midst of all my reference books,” he says.
Such bizarre examples, from kittens drinking tea to squirrels boxing, see the morbid and the whimsical fight for supremacy. Anthropomorphic taxidermy can command prices in the £20,000s. At the famous sale of Potter’s museum collection at Bonhams in 2003, the highest-selling piece, The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, featuring 98 species of British bird, including a grave-digging owl, went for £23,500.
Alexis Turner, who owns the natural history showroom London Taxidermy, counts illusionist Derren Brown and television presenter Jonathan Ross among his clients. His own history of collecting taxidermy started as a child, when he had a cased arctic hare dating from 1890 as a bedside table. A trend for transforming mounted animals from mere decoration into more practical furniture emerged in the late 19th century, pioneered by the taxidermist Rowland Ward, coining the term Wardian furniture. In a move that recalls Alice in Wonderland’s flamingo croquet mallets, Ward fashioned a hall porter’s chair from a baby elephant, made tabletops out of rhinoceros skins and turned crocodiles into umbrella stands. Such surreal objects are still coveted today, and Walpoles antiques shop in London has a Wardian polo mallet stand made from four giraffe legs for £5,500.
The market for taxidermy has “exploded over the past five years”, says Turner, with some examples, such as pristine domes of tropical birds, rising tenfold in value. Cases by Victorian artisans known for their exquisite cabinet-making or distinctive painted backgrounds, including those by Peter Spicer, Edward Gerrard and James Hutchings, have seen the sharpest rise. A dome of birds by Spicer, for example, can fetch £6,000. “Works by these names are in limited supply, but you can still find them. Victorian taxidermy by unknown practitioners, however, can be worth next to nothing,” says Viktor Wynd, co-owner of The Last Tuesday Society, an east London boutique of curios also frequented by Ross.
Although considered a very British eccentricity, taxidermy is becoming increasingly popular among the French, Italians, Germans and Belgians, with celebrated Paris shop Deyrolle a hub for collectors. It boasts an exquisite display of exotic birds, with at least 100 ornithological pieces on show. After the emporium burnt down in 2008, it was rebuilt by Prince Louis Albert de Broglie with the help of Hermès, Christie’s and the French army.
Taboos surrounding taxidermy have waxed and waned since its Victorian heyday, when Fuller estimates one in two middle-class homes boasted a stuffed bird or mammal. After the second world war, austerity measures and a growing awareness of conservation meant it fell out of fashion. Expeditions such as Major Powell-Cotton’s three-year safari to British East Africa in 1905 to hunt for specimens (at a cost of £4,000, equivalent to £1.5m today) no longer chimed with post-colonial Britain and by the 1970s most taxidermy companies had closed.
In a reversal of fortunes, big-game pieces now often fetch the highest prices. In 2009, a tiger skin with mounted head prepared by the prized Indian company Van Ingen & Van Ingen in around 1940 sold at Christie’s for £18,125. “Trophy hunting was an alpha-male activity, characterised by the likes of Hemingway, who spent three months on safari in Africa in 1933, and Denys Finch Hatton,” says Jane Eastoe, author of The Art of Taxidermy. “It is absolutely of its time and must be considered in that context.”
A top-hatted giraffe (£17,500) and a miniature caiman waiter (£2,375) were among the pieces sold from James Perkins’ Aynhoe Park collection at Christie’s in October. Perkins, who co-founded the recording company Concert Live and the Fantazia label, says many buyers at the sale were from the Middle East and Asia, looking “to acquire a bit of colonial Britain. Westerners used to go on trophy-hunting expeditions to the east, now those countries are looking west. And what do they want? They want a cut of the old colonialism.”