When Harriet Horton invited me for a taxidermy class I was intrigued, but I can’t deny I also felt a bit queasy at the same time. Taxidermy workshops have been very popular in the UK in recent years and as I figured such an invitation wouldn’t come around any time soon again, I decided to cowboy up, act as a proper journalist and get my hands dirty for a memorable article. Just a warning for the fainthearted among my readers: this post does contain some graphic photos! (No live animals were hurt for this article.)
I set out to Harriet’s London studio in Aldgate East. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was certain that Harriet would be rather eccentric and that her studio would smell of chemicals and nasty dead animal fumes. I proved to be absolutely wrong on both these points! Harriet is a really friendly and funky young woman who looks very rock ‘n’ roll. Her cosy studio is filled with her beautiful work and does not smell at all!
Ever since she was young, Harriet has been obsessed with animals and she always knew that she wanted to work with them. From the day she first saw taxidermy she had a strong urge. Harriet: “I’ve always had a big love for animals and in a weird sense this is the reason for going into taxidermy. You never get to touch a magpie in the wild and now I get to touch those and so many different animals every day.”
Harriet studied philosophy and had a few different jobs after graduation, including in advertising, but all the time her heart was set on taxidermy. Six years ago she started doing it and taught herself with the help of Breakthrough magazine, according to Harriet one of the best manuals on the market. She then went to Edinburgh to take up classes with taxidermy specialist George Jamieson.
Dutch Girl: “Why did you go all the way to Scotland to take classes with Jamieson?”
Harriet: “At the time there weren’t that many taxidermy teachers and I knew he was one of the best. He had also taught Polly Morgan.” (Polly Morgan is a famous contemporary taxidermy artist who makes remarkable installations with animals.)
Harriet persevered and at a certain point worked four days a week in her job and had Fridays to work on her taxidermy. She did that for a year till she had saved up enough fundings to do taxidermy fulltime.
Dutch Girl: “Do you need to know a lot about the anatomy of the animals you work with?”
Harriet: “It is not so much about studying anatomy, but you do need to know how they move and what their natural body postures are. Often I just sit in the park and observe animals. YouTube is also great. It enables you to study animals up close for how long you want without ever having to leave the studio.”
Taxidermy has become very fashionable over recent years, not only in the UK, but also in the US says Harriet: “American magazines use my photos of the black squirrel and mouse with Chanel logo all the time. The Chanel mouse is my best-selling item in the US.”
Websites and social media pages that post photos of taxidermy gone wrong (such as the comical Twitter account Crap Taxidermy) proves there’s a big interest in this art form. Especially anthropomorphic taxidermy (adding human characteristics to preserved animals) seems to be very popular at the moment, but this is not what Harriet is after in her work: “I don’t personify the animals, but display them in their more natural environment. I do use neon in taxidermy and use Swarovski crystals for the eyes, that’s my unique selling point. While studying taxidermy, I felt quite early on that I wanted to do something more than traditional taxidermy. So after half a year I started dyeing the animals.”
Harriet recently started to give workshops. She never intended to do this, but she noticed that people like her take on taxidermy and wanted to learn from her. Harriet: “The most workshop requests are from women between 19 and 39 years old. I can have a maximum of two people at the studio. I don’t want to teach big classes as I wouldn’t be able to give students the amount of attention they deserve then.”
Time to get busy
First step: research
The first step in taxidermy is far less gory than you’d expect. First of all you need to find photos or videos of the life animal and decide what position is natural to the animal and how you would want to preserve it. I was going to work on a sparrow and decided I wanted to have its wings spread out. Secondly, you draw the contours of the body on a piece of paper. The drawing is an important reference in a later stage when you need to fill up the empty body. (More on this step later.) I also took the time to play around with the animal to get used to touching a dead bird and to bend its wings and legs as the animal had been frozen and was a bit stiff.
Loosening the skin and taking out the organs
After the research it was time to take the scalpel at hand and make one big incision from neck to tail. Surprisingly, taxidermy isn’t a bloody affair at all, that is if you don’t cut too deep as I did… After having made the incision, I gently wiggled the skin around the cut to loosen up the skin and detach it from the organs. This stage took quite a while as the skin is very delicate and tears if not done with care. After I managed to separate all the skin from the organs (with Harriet’s help), it was time to remove the organs which were all safely and neatly wrapped up in a sac.
After we pulled out the sac with organs, I had to remove the bits of flesh at the tip of the legs and wings inside the body. This is to ensure that all soft tissue is removed so there’s no flesh left inside that could rot. I expected that taxidermy involves a lot of chemicals to preserve the body and to prevent rotting, but the only things we used was a powder to soak up the bit of blood on the feathers caused by the incision I made too deep and also a powder to make the skin a bit more supple.
Now came the nastiest bit of the entire process: clearing the last bits in the head! For this you have to carefully flip the skin over the head so that the skull is accessible. This was tricky for my bird as it had suffered a so-called ‘freezer burn’, in this case resulting in the skin being burnt onto the skull. Harriet helped me out with this and she also removed the bird’s tongue and eyes for me… She made a slightly bigger hole in the skull to remove the brains, a yellow gooey substance, which I mopped up with cotton wool.
Creating new intestines
After the nastiest bit was done, I thought it would be easy peasy from here, but what followed was actually the hardest part: filling up the body and sewing it up. We used wood wool to recreate the bird’s body sac to fill up the body again. There are big foam forms available to fill up bigger animals. In this stage I used the body contours I had drawn earlier to recreate the length and position of the neck. After I put the bird in the desired position, again using the contours on the piece of paper, I sew up the bird. Before I knew it, I was as bold as Harriet and didn’t even wear gloves anymore! Having spent hours working on the dead bird, I felt more comfortable handling it. I noticed that doing taxidermy is quite calming as your mind is so focussed on the work that there is no space for everyday distractions.
I was quite happy with my bird until I saw that I had’t sewn it up that neatly. Herein lies the trickiest part Harriet confined in me: “No matter how well you do on the inside, it can all be ruined in the end when you don’t stitch correctly.” I felt better when she said that my bird looked good for a first-timer and that her first animal didn’t even resemble the actual animal anymore. In my case, I had feathers get caught in the sewing work which makes the front look a bit messy.
Here is the final result. Oh yeah, I forget to say that my sparrow is a bit wonky as well. Judge for yourself, what do you think of it?
Before I left, Harriet showed me a few exclusive animals stored away in the well-stocked freezer in her studio, such as this cute mole and beautiful kingfisher. Isn’t it amazing to see such wonderful animals up close?
Details taxidermy course
For more information on Harriet, her work and taxidermy courses, please go to her website: harriethorton.com.
She’s a brilliant and very patient teacher who’s professionally taught and has 5 years of experience. Harriet is also a member of the UK Guild of Taxidermists.
Individual or group tuition available in London.
1-day course = £200 each
2-day course = £350 each
Ethically sourced specimen – birds or small mammals available.
All tools provided.
Take your specimen home with you.
Free follow-up advice.
Harriet is available for private commissions and has made works for individuals, cafes, restaurants and celebrities, mostly musicians: Harriet’s works (and hands) featured in Maya Jane Coles’ music video featuring (Karin Park) and she made a stage prop for singer Nadine Shah on tour with Depeche Mode.