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Fine Taxidermy © Douglas Friedman

Inside the intriguing world of fine taxidermy

In the Netherlands, a secretary bird has made the mistake of choosing a 5m-long king python for its dinner. The snake is curled around its unsuspecting prey, so while the bird is eyeing up its tail, it has no idea what lies around the corner. “We like to create some romantic drama that tells a story,” says Ferry van Tongeren of the nail-biting scene. This is the latest commission for him and partner Jaap Sinke of Fine Taxidermy. The Dutch duo – both former ad men – have been overturning preconceptions of mounted beasts for the past couple of decades, breathing new life into an ancient practice.

Conventional taxidermists fit animals’ tanned skins around factory-made moulds, meaning “nearly every type of animal has one ubiquitous pose,” according to van Tongeren. In contrast, “Jaap and I never use the same pose twice. We hand-build our moulds from scratch using clay, wood and wire. To do that, you have to really study the animal and its movement. The skin only fits one way, so if it’s not correct, it shows.”

We hand-build our moulds from scratch using clay, wood and wire. To do that, you have to really study the animal and its movement – Ferry van Tongeren

A snake taxidermy creation by Fine Taxidermy
‘Snake Heraldry’ by Sinke & Van Tongeren © Fine Taxidermy

The poses are informed by their 25 years’ experience in art direction, “while a traditional taxidermist only has biology as a reference”, he adds.

The duo are part of a small but influential coterie which is repositioning taxidermy as unsettling, intriguing, witty or beautiful works of art. This is far cry from many people’s experience of the practice.

During colonial times, the tiger skin floor rug graced some of Europe’s finest homes. Nowadays, North American trophy hunters might display a moose head or some more exotic prize from a safari trip. And sentimental pet owners around the world can cuddle up with Fluffy for eternity, once he’s stuffed.

In contrast, Fine Taxidermy uses the bodies of animals that have died in zoos or breeding facilities. “We only work with animals that are born and have died of natural causes, in captivity,” van Tongeren explains. And aesthetically, their starting point is the Dutch masters. “In the 17th century, Weenix, d’Hondecoeter and van Olen portrayed the exotic animals, brought in by explorers like Charles Darwin, in a way that showed every flamboyant detail. Working in their style helps us to make our animals look so alive and scintillating,” says Sinke.

Their pieces take up position in extraordinary houses, mansions, castles and palaces worldwide, their clients are typically interior designers, nature lovers, investors, collectors or famous actors. Often the works are created specifically for a certain house, room or spot, so the duo either visit or request photos of the location. “We can create work that will lift the room and act as a real centre-piece. But on other occasions, we need to create some nice details in an already breathtaking interior,” says van Tongeren.

A taxidermy monkey at Les Trois Garçons
Taxidermy on display at Les Trois Garçons

While creatives like Fine Taxidermy are transforming taxidermy into an art form, others have turned it into an interiors phenomenon. When Les Trois Garçons opened its doors in 2000, Londoners didn’t know what had hit them. The Shoreditch restaurant was populated by a curious cast of bejewelled creatures. These included a rare Victorian bulldog sporting fairy wings, and a Siberian tiger complete with a bullet hole, draped in Art Deco diamante. LTG co-owner Hassan Abdullah believes that it was the pairing of animals with real, expensive jewellery that made the difference. Hence the Miriam Haskell necklaces worth thousands of pounds, “rather than tat from a flea market. And we juxtaposed things properly, contrasting new with old.”

The restaurant and its spin-off venue Lounge Lover were the go-to places for fashionistas and the glitterati. Soon taxidermy was cropping up in interiors schemes by the likes of Philippe Starck. “Now every single pub and restaurant has stuffed animals’ heads,” Abdullah says. “When something’s fashionable everyone does their version of it.”

In Clerkenwell’s Zetter Townhouse, for example, taxidermy sits alongside collectibles and antiques. And a mile or so east, the King’s Head pub boasts a ‘wildcat room’, where a brace of zebra heads is suspended over the mantelpiece, and a number of big cats face off a cornered polar bear.

That might work in the UK, but not on the US’s East Coast. “In Seattle, the politics wouldn’t lend themselves to a lot of taxidermy. You never see a fur coat here,” says artist and curator Curtis Steiner. “We don’t have the same tradition of taxidermy being an art (as in Europe).” He used to stock a few choice bits of taxidermy in his Seattle store, Souvenir. “Most people were individuals buying for their homes,” and given that houses there are never more than a century old, such items could give them “a generational feel”.

Seattle bar Deep Dive
Taxidermy adds a purposefully ironic narrative to the design of Seattle bar Deep Dive © Haris Kenjar

Like Fine Taxidermy’s practitioners, Steiner is more interested in taxidermy being “sculptural, creating an ironic narrative, rather than a standard presentation of a beast.” He pursued this notion in his object curation for the new Seattle bar, Deep Dive. Inspired by the worlds of Darwin and Jules Verne, with a dash of 1920s speakeasy thrown in, the interiors were created by Graham Baba Architects. “It’s a small place with complex geometry. It was like fitting out a boat,” says lead architect Jim Graham.

Among the luxurious carpets and drapes, and dark decorative wood panelling sit 200 objects brought in by Steiner. Just two are taxidermy. “I like to keep it to a minimum,” he says, to avoid “a zoo atmosphere”. The grebe is in a mating ritual stance, because “I wanted something of mystery but beauty,” while the red squirrel, clasping a nut as if it were an American football, “adds a sense of whimsy and fun”. Both are under cloches, so that “you can muse about them rather than have a dead thing next to your plate,” he adds.

Taxidermy donates a sense of exoticism, he believes, adding that he uses it sparingly to avoid environments becoming too kitsch. Abdullah echoes this: “I like interiors to be fun and witty, but one step over it becomes tacky.”

Ferry van Tongeren, Co-Founder of Fine Taxidermy
Ferry van Tongeren, Co-Founder of Fine Taxidermy

Abdullah admits that, as the Trois Garçons business evolved from restaurant to interior design firm, taxidermy became a bit of an albatross around its neck. “People associate us with that look, it was difficult to break away from that.” He does have taxidermy on show in his chateau in France, but just a few examples. Hence the unicorns in the hallway and the swordfish in the conservatory.

Meanwhile for the taxidermists, the biggest headache is not animal rights or public perception but bureaucracy. “We export a lot of our work, and the paperwork necessary for that is just crazy,” says van Tongeren of Fine Taxidermy.

And when they are not imagining new compositions or filling out another form, he and Sinke dream of opening their own venue in Amsterdam or London. “It will be a monument to endangered species, some sort of Sinke & van Tongeren-style museum that is a tribute to these animals, some of which for certain will go extinct, while others might be saved if we change our behaviour.”

Because, as he points out, “The only alternative for these animals would be that they end up in the garbage bin. I like to think that we honour them more by preserving them.”

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