Detail from 'Hide and Fight'

Animal Magic: Polly Morgan

6th July 2012

Deborah Mulhearn profiles contemporary artist Polly Morgan

A trip to the Serengeti inspired artist Polly Morgan’s latest work Endless Plains, on show at All Visual Arts gallery in King’s Cross until the end of July. It wasn’t the sun-soaked African landscape or the brilliant colours that fired her, however, but a dead and decaying wildebeest. “It looked as if it was fast asleep,” she says disarmingly, “until you got up close and saw that its stomach had been hollowed out by vultures.”

This seemingly gruesome response makes sense once you know that Polly is a taxidermy artist who has been creating artworks from dead animals for nearly a decade. Her pieces now sell for thousands of pounds to celebrities and art collectors alike – Kate Moss, Vanessa Branson (sister of Richard) and singers Courtney Love and Sharleen Spiteri are just a few of the admirers who have bought her exquisite though frankly surreal pieces.

Her art certainly has elements of those bizarre Victorian tableaux of cricketing hamsters or kittens at a wedding feast, and even of the exotic specimens you find in museums and country houses. But they are a world away from Victoriana: delicate, colourful, subtle and sometimes cheeky – a fox curled in a giant champagne glass, a blue tit in a matchbox bed, a small white rabbit on a top hat instead of inside it.

“I like Victorian taxidermy but I don’t see myself as its inheritor,” she says. “The only thing I have in common with the Victorians is the taxidermy – it’s just a material – the same way that the only thing abstract and portrait painting have in common is the paint.”

Unlike the past, where trophy hunters killed indiscriminately and without caring or understanding that they were endangering many species, modern practice is strictly controlled with laws and guidelines. Polly is a member of the Guild of Taxidermists, which works to raise the profile and standards of legitimate taxidermy in the UK. She stresses that she only uses animals that are already dead through natural or accidental means, or have been donated by pet owners and vets.

Once home from Africa, and after a burst appendix, which turned to gangrene and peritonitis, adding yet another layer of experience to use in her art along the way, the wildebeest became a stag. “Finding stock is a massive part of my job,” she explains. “I can’t just go out and buy the specimens… Sometimes I have to abandon the idea if I can’t get hold of what I want.” She has a network of suppliers built up over nearly a decade of taxidermy work: aviary owners, vets, pet owners.

The stag is the largest animal she has taxidermied to date, and forms an artwork named Hide and Flight. “I’ve made it look like it’s sleeping too, and suspended lots of sleeping bats from its ribcage. I’ve rigged up two mirrors inside facing one another, so that they create the illusion of a never-ending bat cave – like a hall of mirrors.”

Polly with 'Carrion Call'

It took Polly a while to realise that she wanted to be an artist. After completing a degree in English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London, she was managing a bar in London’s arty Shoreditch and had met many of the YBAs (Young British Artists) who hung out there. “I’m not really sure how and why it happened,” she says. “I tried out photography and journalism and somehow found my way to taxidermy. I think it was partly a way of satisfying my curiosity about the natural world – it combines art and science beautifully.”

After a few training sessions in Edinburgh, Polly started to create her own pieces. “Of course I kept getting things wrong at first. It was frustrating when I messed up, but I really enjoyed it and knew straight away that I wanted to be a practitioner. I’ve always been a hands-on person – I grew up in the countryside – and it’s quite magical when you realise an idea and it all comes together into something very beautiful and satisfying.”

Polly was taught the traditional techniques of removing the skin then building a sculpture of the body. “You are only using the skin – everything else is wood, clay and wire. Some taxidermists remove the bones but I tend to leave them in as they help keep the body shape,” she explains. After the laborious process of cutting away the flesh and fat, the skin is pulled back over the new body and stitched up. “I’m not the greatest seamstress,” she laughs. “But it doesn’t matter because the stitches are hidden by the fur and feathers.”

She admits that it upsets her when people have a negative reaction to her art. “I learn so much about life doing what I do. It has given me huge respect for nature and wildlife, even for the human body, and it is natural for me to want to know more,” she says. They key point is that they are dead. “I couldn’t go near anything that was living. The animals I work on have lived their lives.”

Stuffing a stag is not for the faint hearted. Polly has one assistant, Kim, who works with her on some of the taxidermy. She occasionally has interns who have had experience of taxidermy working for her, but this is only when the bulk of work is too large for just the two of them to handle. It’s laborious and messy. Even a tiny bird takes many hours to prepare. “But there’s a lot less blood than you might imagine. It doesn’t spurt out because the heart has stopped pumping,” she explains.

First she makes a light incision down the breastbone and carefully peels the skin off the body, like pulling off a jumper, inside out but all in one piece. Then she teases the flesh away. “Sometimes it’s difficult to know where the skin ends and the body begins,” she says. “But it starts to become instinctive. Makes you good at carving the Sunday roast,” she adds with a wry smile.

“Taxidermy has had a bad reputation in the past. For a long time people have been viewing it in similar ways and I wanted to do something completely different. Taxidermy in itself hasn’t changed, but the world around it has. I’m moving on from Victoriana. Everything I do is almost a reaction to what I’ve done before, and moving on to larger animals is part of that.”

Polly was surrounded by animals as a child, and does not sentimentalise or anthropomorphise them in her art. “The argument that it’s disrespectful to animals is redundant,” she says. “It foists human sentimentality onto them. Animals don’t mourn their own; they sometimes eat their dead, so at the most it’s depriving them of a meal.”

She understands, however, that some people are squeamish about the process. “I gave a talk and demonstration in Liverpool recently and the evening was thrown somewhat when the cameraman passed out during one of the messier parts (he swears the two weren’t connected!) but thankfully he regained his composure and I was able to carry on.”

As fascinating as she finds taxidermy, Polly is now ready to move on, she says, and has started working with other materials and techniques. “I don’t do taxidermy every day,” she asserts, “and I certainly don’t want to crowbar it into my work. There are other composites I want to use, and I’ve been drawing a lot recently.”

Despite the unnerving proximity of death and decay in her work, she is clearly not a morbid person. “I don’t dwell on death any more than the next person,” she laughs. “I love life! I really do.”

Polly Morgan’s solo show Endless Plains is at All Visual Arts,
2 Omega Place, King’s Cross, London N1 9DR, until 31 July 2012.

Find Your Local