It was all the rage in the Victorian era and now it’s fashionable again. Pete Dommett tries his hand at taxidermy…
No longer the preserve of the wealthy middle-classes, taxidermy has just got trendy. Artistically embalmed animals are highly sought-after items and add a touch of classy kitsch to any interior. Good specimens are often hard to come by however, and they command top-drawer prices, but there is a more affordable alternative. Stuff it yourself.
While preserving animal skins has been practised for a long time – embalmed critters have been discovered alongside Egyptian mummies, accounts of bird preservation for natural history cabinets were published in France in 1748, and by the end of the same century, most towns had a tannery business – the golden age of taxidermy came during the Victorian era. Mounted animals became a popular element of interior design thanks to English ornithologist John Hancock – who sparked a national interest in the activity after he exhibited a display of stuffed birds in a London exhibition, and gave rise to anthropomorphic taxidermy in the late 19th-century, a whimsical style that saw stuffed animals dressed as people or displayed as if engaged in human activities.
Today, Bristol decorative antique shop Dig Haüshizzle holds budgie stuffing classes (yes, really), run by Kim Zoe Wagner – a young taxidermist born in Switzerland but now living in the UK. Kim learnt her trade from some of the best in the business, including artist Polly Morgan, and has preserved pieces for the likes of fashion designer Pam Hogg, and illusionist Derren Brown – from a clutch of quail chicks to a baby giraffe.
The one-day course I signed up for was preceded by a demonstration evening at the Colston Street store, during which Kim showed a surprisingly large gathering how to stuff and mount a magpie in just a couple of hours. Like all good teachers, she made it look deceptively easy and I wondered how well I’d fare the following day.
After selecting a bright green budgerigar (which, I should point out, was not killed for the purposes of taxidermy), I took my place at the work table, laid out with newspaper like a primary school art lesson, with three other eager embalmers. Kim took us through the first step of skinning our specimens which was nowhere near as grisly as I thought it might be. After carefully going along the bird’s breastbone with a scalpel, peeling back the paper-thin skin was like opening a little feathery jacket and gradually the body came away in one, neat piece.
We cleaned and then washed our budgies, degreasing the skins with a dash of Fairy Liquid and shampooing the feathers, before blow-drying them on the street corner outside the shop (much to the bemusement of the Sunday strollers on Christmas Steps). It was a lot of fun, but I found it difficult to see how our damp and deflated bundles would ever be made good again.
Kim teaching the class participants
Kim was confident, however. “With taxidermy, there are no secrets,” she told us. “It’s all here. You just have to re-puzzle it back together.” So, after a fortifying lunch provided by Cassandra, Dig Haüshizzle’s co-owner, Kim showed us how to replace the bird’s body with one made from wood wool and chopped hemp, and how to reshape the budgie’s skull with clay. These were then glued together and reattached to the wings and legs with wire.
It was a tricky process, but suddenly my bird was starting to take shape. After easing everything into its original position, Judith – a retired vet – showed off her suturing skills as we sewed our budgies back up and Kim helped me with the fiddly business of setting two black, glass beads into the empty eye sockets. Then, over tea and cake, we avidly preened our avian art, rearranging the plumage until perfect.
Rather than the Frankenstein-style freak I feared I’d create, I’d somehow brought this delicate bird back to life, preserving its natural beauty for years to come. ‘Susan’ is now proudly on display at home and admired by many visitors. How do I rate my first taste of taxidermy? It’s been great stuff, of course.
The next taxidermy budgie courses take place across 15 and 16 July and cost £195; dig-haushizzle.co.uk