Culture Editor Henrietta Thompson interviews British taxidermist Polly Morgan about the curiosities of her job and the increasing popularity of taxidermy as an art form.
Polly Morgan >
I first met Polly Morgan several years ago at an arty party somewhere in East London. We’d vaguely recognised each other as we’d gone to the same school, although being a year apart we hadn’t ever spoken. Moving through the obligatory conventions, Polly told me what she now did for a living: taxidermy.
Taxidermy was not, at that point, widely considered to be the glamorous offshoot of the art world that it is today. This was the alternative profession of strange characters who more likely populated Victorian times, or olde fantasie worldes. It called to mind an entirely different stereotype to Polly, a glamourous blonde in her twenties.
Polly’s career in the past few years has skyrocketed. From working with many of the best known creatives in the business she now operates as a highly successful artist in her own right. Taxidermy has meanwhile seen an extraordinary surge in popularity, both for collectors and as a career option.
Morgan did not plan an art career, but after graduating, she met the professional taxidermist George Jamieson and was inspired to create work of her own. She took a course and discovered her own talent. Her first four pieces caught the attention of Banksy and in 2005, he commissioned her to produce more work. Her next piece, a white rat curled up in a shallow champagne glass, was exhibited at the Zoo Art Fair in 2005.
With the excuse of Brilliant Britain, we’ve had the pleasure of catching up with her again, and taking a look behind the scenes of her studio.
Taxidermy has had a huge resurgence in the last few years – why do you think this is?
I always say that fashions are cyclical and that taxidermy’s resurgence is a reaction against the minimalism prevalent in the 90s… but I’ve been saying that for ages now so it must be time for it to swing back the other way. Uh-oh…
Is it here to stay? How does it affect you and your work now that it’s become so fashionable?
I think it will always be here in one form or another. After all, it’s of interest scientifically as well as artistically and as long as people have an interest in the natural world, they’ll have an interest in taxidermy. Its ubiquitousness has definitely made me swerve off in a new direction. In 2004 I wanted to do something new with taxidermy, in 2012 it already feels a little dated to me and I am moving on. It doesn’t mean I will no longer use it, just not in every work and in very different ways.
Why is taxidermy considered to be such a British idea?
There is a strong hunting tradition in Britain which has kept a lot of taxidermists in business over the years. However, this is also what has put some people off – as it has been too much associated with the privileged classes and with the unnecessary death of animals. There has also been the odd lone oddball like Walter Potter, who’s famous tableaux brought taxidermy (however badly executed!) to a new audience.
Do you need to be an artist to be a taxidermist?
You need to be observant, patient and a good technician to make great taxidermy. However, the imagination and innovation required of an artist are often lacking in traditional mounts, despite awe-inspiring execution.
What advice would you give anyone wanting to follow a similar career path?
It’s a difficult thing to advise on as I came to be where I am as a consequence of so many seemingly insignificant events. It’s impossible to recreate someone else’s career path so I would first off advise against paying too much attention to the choices other artists have made and try to be instinctive in your own. Don’t waste too much time thinking to start with – there’s plenty of time for that later – and learn some skills. It is only when you have the ability to realise your ideas that you can let your imagination get going.
Sound advice! What are you working on at the moment?
My next body of work is going to be about my struggle to move on from working with taxidermy into other materials. It will be a face-off between stuffed animals and inert matter.