Dead Rats in Hats: Talking to a Taxidermist
Who would have imagined that the inside of a rat smells better than the inside of a hamster? This, and other valuable lessons, are available at Amanda’s taxidermy classes. Would-be taxidermists in London now have the opportunity to prepare their very own specimen. As I discover, this involves a room of people gingerly prodding at cold rodent carcasses. Amanda assures us that the specimens would have otherwise been reptile feed. Guilt assuaged, we begin. The process involves carefully removing the skin and then stuffing and wiring the hide into something that resembles a hamster. Some of the final products are surprisingly lifelike little zombie-hamsters. Others are probably more appropriate for traumatizing children.
Amanda’s own creations are a world apart. None of the animals she uses have been killed for taxidermy. All the specimens have died natural deaths, been killed by cars or were intended as pet-feed. A graphic designer by day, she runs taxidermy classes at Barts Pathology museum. Her own work draws on the Victorian Walter Potter’s anthropomorphic taxidermy. The playful and occasionally surreal pieces feature animals in fancy dress. There are two-headed rats, rabbits in tweed, and a mouse dressed as the Pope; the most spectacular are the automata, a collection on mechanised taxidermy specimens. My personal favourite is rat in a bowler hat catching butterflies. Amanda was generous enough to share her experiences, including the good, the badly, and the ugly of life as a taxidermist.
How did you become interested in taxidermy?
My parents always took me to interesting places as a child, and the Walter Potter museum was one of them. I remember all the animals dressed up in little costumes; I gawped at them for hours. Years later I heard that the collection had been sold in an auction… I was hoping to visit the museum again someday. So instead, I decided to give it a go myself, so I could have a piece sitting around in my own home as I couldn’t see the originals any more. I was about 27 at the time. (I’m 36 now).
I had to teach myself through books and videos, as no one was willing to teach me, at that time taxidermy was still mainly occupied by older men who did this as a living, so didn’t want to many people learning the skill. With a bit of practice, I managed to make something that looked like it was supposed to, my first mouse (which I still have) is practically bald and has no eyes, poor thing.
I made a few pieces and dressed them, and people started to take an interest, and asked me to make them something, so it became a self-funding hobby.
Did anything surprise you about taxidermy when you began?
It was interesting how easily the skin came away from the body, and I’d never really handled anything dead before (I didn’t have pets apart from a dog when I was younger, and my cat never brought in critters). I’ve never been a squeamish person so it was really interesting to see how the body works. The other thing that everyone notices on their first try (as long as you’re not too heavy handed) is the lack of blood, and how the insides stay within a membrane sack and don’t spill out everywhere.
Do you have a favourite animal to taxidermy and why?
The easiest ones for me to skin are mice, but I do get bored of those, everyone always seems to want mice! Otherwise, I think most animals tend to be similar. The larger the animal, the tougher it gets as the skin is thicker, and the whole thing is bulky and heavy. The most satisfying to sew up is a lamb, their fur covers the join perfectly, it’s harder to hide that on other animals.
What is the most difficult animal to taxidermy?
I’ve worked on a two-headed lamb, the features were quite deformed so it was difficult to recreate the faces as they were lop-sided and cleft lipped. I have an 8 legged lamb in the freezer, which I’m putting off, it’s going to be really difficult, long legs are hard to skin in general, but this one has legs all over the place, some are different lengths, and in odd positions. Not only will it be hard to skin, but it’s going to be really tough re-creating the form.
Is there anything you wouldn’t taxidermy and why?
I hate working on birds, they’re so unforgiving. If feathers fall out then they look a mess and there isn’t really anything you can do to save it. I have trouble getting the shape right, and the skin is usually really thin and easily tears. I tend to not bother with them, occasionally I work on magpies, and I have a bunch of various game bird in the freezer that haven’t been touched in years. I also have a crow, which I do want to work on, and will probably keep it for myself. Most of the taxidermy I have in my house is by other people, and are birds.
Can you tell me what you’re working on now and what some of your past projects have been?
At the moment I’m working on a few bits for a mini market at the John Soane Museum’s Halloween event, it’s just for a bit of fun really, I’ve based them on Hogarth style characters, one of which is a gin wench. I should be receiving a new automaton in the post tomorrow from my friend Mark Mills of Brimstone Studios, we work together on taxidermy automatons. I create the taxidermy elements, and he puts it all together and makes it move, then sends it back to me to dress. This piece will be a fortune teller, it gives you a fortune card at the end of the animation.
My favourite pieces are the automatons, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but just can’t get my head around the mechanics. Mark contacted me asking if I’d be interested in collaborating, and of course I said yes, I’d actually asked others in the past, but no one was interested. We’ve made a magician rabbit, he waves a wand over a cup, and every time he lifts the cup, it has a different object under it.
Is modern day taxidermy different from taxidermy in the past?
Yes, as different (and safer) chemicals are used, we don’t use arsenic any more for a start! There are a lot of similar techniques used still, like the use of wood wool to create the forms. It’s easier to ‘cheat’ forms these days by buying ready-made foam forms instead of making your own. You can buy plastic eyes instead of hand-blown glass eyes if you want to keep it cheap, but the professionals will always favour the glass eyes. (They can range from £30 – £90 in some cases).
Do you have a favourite figure from the history of taxidermy?
I love the pieces Walter Potter created, I wouldn’t say he was a great taxidermist, a lot of his pieces look a little odd, but sweet. I mainly appreciate museum pieces, the best I’ve seen are in the Japanese Natural History Museum, they were perfect. The dioramas in the New York Natural History Museum are stunning, the work that went into putting those together was incredible. They have preserved everything beautifully too, our NHM is a little old and worn as they don’t have the funds for upkeep, but the NY museum charge, which does make all the difference. I would rather pay to enter a museum so they can constantly restore and preserve than get in for free.
You teach taxidermy classes, what are people’s reactions to doing taxidermy for the first time?
Most are a little nervous, anxious or just excited. I’ve only had about 2 people walk out before they’ve even started, thinking that they’d be ok to do the class, but then find out that they can’t bring themselves to do it. I’ve had a couple of people pass out when watching me demonstrate for the first time, one carried on the lesson, the other passed out about 3 times and went home before he had a chance to start. I think sometimes if it’s warm in the museum, and the student has a fair bit of adrenalin pumping through them, it makes them feel a little giddy.
What kinds of people come to your classes and what do they want from it?
We have all sorts, students, mainly fashion, people in the medical profession (morticians are usually too heavy-handed as they are used to working on humans, one guy decided to unravel the insides of a rat as he wanted to compare it to human anatomy) all sorts of different ages, but it does mainly tend to be women that attend the classes more than men.
What kinds of taxidermy commissions do you get?
I tend to keep to one sort of style, I’m very much into Victorian London, so everything has a bit of a Victorian theme to it. I usually have requests that are similar to what I’ve already created, occasionally I’ll work on someone’s pet hamster who they’ve wanted dressed up too. I do get requests to create something grotesque or on a modern theme (superman, punk etc.) but I don’t have an interest in making those types of pieces, so I politely decline, explaining that it’s not in keeping with my style.
What are the best and worst pieces of taxidermy you have seen?
I’ve seen some terrible pieces in museums all over the country, they are very old pieces and it’s obvious that the taxidermist was just sent the skins with no visual reference to the animal, so they just mounted it how they thought it should look. The best pieces are in Japan, as with most Japan based things, they create everything to perfection. Because the Japanese have so much respect for everything, they leave a lot of their animals outside of cases, no one is rude enough to touch them, they’ve been brought up to appreciate everything, and not to touch or vandalise.
Is there a taxidermy community and, if so, what is it like?
There is I’m sure, I’ve been a part of a society before that helped museums look after the pieces they have, and we used to get tours behind the scenes too. Unfortunately the group was mainly made up of taxidermy dealers, who were only in the society to make sure they were first to know of any sales in the industry, conning each other, or just bickered like children about each other. So I left them to it, it’s a shame it wasn’t a friendlier atmosphere. That put me off hanging around others in the scene, I only do this as a hobby, but those that do it full time can get quite competitive and rather nasty, so I’d rather not be a part of that and just leave them to it.
If you need a rat dressed as Sherlock Holmes in your life visit AmandasAutopsies.com
Photography by Amanda Sutton & Philip G.W. Smith