By Henrietta Thompson
A dark art or a comedy creative outlet? The practice of taxidermy has been through a run of reputations since its 19th-century heyday, but – adorning everywhere from the grandest art fairs to the seediest bars – it has never been so prolific as it is today. It seems easier to hire a stuffed duckling in Shoreditch than it is to get a Hailo on a rainy day.
So when I heard about a new exhibition of taxidermy works by Dutch artists Jaap Sinke and Ferry van Tongeren I wasn’t expecting to see anything new. When the curator, Helen Chislett, told me what compelling characters the two make – with Dutch master beards and matching aprons – I still wasn’t completely convinced. But as Chislett’s eye for exciting new talent is second to none, this new show – entitled Darwin’s Menagerie – deserved a visit.
Wow. I’ve always thought you can divide the world into two types of people – those who love taxidermy and those who can’t stand it, but Darwin’s Menagerie transcends the label altogether, and I don’t think many people could fail to be moved by it. This is not quirky nature meets urban cool, this elevates taxidermy to a higher plane, inspired as it is by the natural world artists of the 17th century. Here are the paintings of Jan Weenix, Melchior d’Hondecoeter and Adriaen van Olen brought to life in all their feathery finery.
Sinke and van Tongeren are not constrained by the usual factory moulds that dictate the bulk of taxidermy seen today, says Chislett. Instead they prefer to make everything from scratch. “Starting with detailed sketches and measurements of each specimen their bespoke poses show the animal or bird to their very best advantage,” she explains – the duo never put an animal in the same pose twice. “They are not just taxidermists, but tailors, beauticians, hairdressers and stylists. While traditional taxidermy seems inadvertently to emphasise the deadness of the animal, in the hands of Jaap and Ferry animals become alive, alert and bright with colour.”
Chatting to the artists, Darwin seems the most fitting place to start – given that they’ve appropriated the naturalist’s name. According to van Tongeren: “We regard him as our executive director, part of the inspiration for what we do.” Sinke agrees, “We wanted to make the point that our taxidermy is dedicated to showing the beauty and magic of nature, something of which Charles Darwin would surely have approved.”
Van Tongeren has always had an interest in natural history. “I started collecting animal skulls when I was a boy, and I was fascinated by taxidermy and how animals and birds were portrayed by the Old Masters who set out to portray the wonder of the exotic animals brought back to Europe by explorers such as Darwin. They remain an inspiration.”
Having sold his advertising agency, Doom & Dickson in 2000 for a nice sum, he took his family travelling around the world. “I decided I wanted to learn taxidermy. I can’t explain why: it just happened. I came back and, with great difficulty, persuaded a skilled taxidermist I knew to let me work for him for a year unpaid. That led to me working part-time as a taxidermist at the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden, one of the oldest and largest taxidermy collections in the world, where I continue to extend my knowledge of traditional techniques.”
For Sinke, it was a less predictable career change, however. “To be honest, I never saw myself becoming a taxidermist! However, my father was a vet, and in art school I specialised for a year in learning to draw anatomically correct animals. When Ferry suggested I join him in this new venture, it seemed like a natural progression.”
Sinke and van Tongeren each have different specialities that they bring to their art. When a new creature's corpse comes in, Sinke makes sketches for the possible poses and the pair then work together to make the frames. Van Tongeren undertakes the more complicated taxidermy, but then Sinke will add artistic touches, such as painting the birds’ bills and beaks – it is a painstakingly detailed and time consuming process. “They go black when preserved and most taxidermists airbrush them for speed. I make sure they are painted in layers until they really glow.”
Perceptions of taxidermy being a gruesome and morbid profession are no longer valid, thanks to increased awareness and education around the craft. But animal welfare is – especially in pet-obsessed Britain – always a huge issue. “People imagine we kill animals to mount and that we empty them with a spoon while covered in blood,” says Sinke. “In fact we save them from the garbage can. Millions of these beautiful animals go into the trash every day somewhere in the world. We like to think we give our animals new life.”
Finding the animals themselves is not as easy as you might think, says van Tongeren. “The taxidermist who trained me made me promise I would never poach his own network of breeders, zoos and animal sanctuaries so it has taken a long time to build up our own contacts. Holland was the first country to outlaw the killing of birds from the wild, so we also have to be very careful that we have all the necessary documentation showing where each creature was sourced.”
And in case anyone was thinking of getting ahead on this year’s novelty Christmas presents, let’s nip it in the bud right now… “We don’t want to stuff someone’s pet for them! Neither do we take on trophy taxidermy [animals killed from hunting\. Our specimens come from all over the world, but we still have a long wish-list in our heads.”
At their exhibition at Jamb on Pimlico Road, the scenes are complimented with a series of photographs of “empty birds”, taken when the artists bathe the skins after tanning them. “For the washing process they have to stay in that mix for a long time. During that time they start floating. With the smaller birds who had enough space in the sink we discovered that it can get very peaceful and the picture is very graceful,” says Sinke. “A sort of a water ballet when some parts surface more than others. When we discovered this we bought a bigger bath to give birds like the flamingo enough space to start floating gracefully. From there we began photographing all the birds.” Framed with museum glass they are printed life size.
Van Tongeren and Sinke hand-build their moulds from scratch using clay, wood and wire, a process which necessitates that they spend time studying the animal and its movement. “The skin only fits one way, so if it is not correct, it shows,” says van Tongeren. “I have been watching nature documentaries all my life, and I have it in my head exactly how an animal should behave.”
Together they scour antiques shops and sales rooms for pedestals, mounts and frames that fit with the 17th-century style of their compositions. To this pair taxidermy can only be described in one way: as fine art. “We are not just taxidermists, we are artists,” says van Tongeren. “Taxidermy is our chosen canvas.”
Darwin's Menagerie is on until Thursday Oct 30 at Jamb, open 9am-6pm weekdays and 11am-4pm on Sundays