Bringing taxidermy back to life

Elle Kaye with a chicken she has 'brought back to life'

Elle Kaye with a chicken she has 'brought back to life' - Credit: Archant

Elle Kaye is at the forefront of a contemporary movement breathing new life into the Victorian craft of taxidermy. Doretta Sarris Hogan met the Bushey artist among stoats, birds and a pull-along duck

Coloured cottons are used for stitching

Coloured cottons are used for stitching - Credit: Archant

Elle Kaye’s mobile phone beeps. She reads the text and her eyes light up. It’s not an invitation to a party or lunch with a friend; instead it’s a message informing her that a dead muntjac has been spotted on the roadside somewhere in Hertfordshire. Elle is a taxidermist, and dissecting dead animals and turning them into works of art is what she does best.

‘I pride myself on using road-kill,’ explains the 22-year-old from Bushey. ‘If I see a dead animal when I’m out driving and I can stop, I will stop. And it’s not uncommon for me to receive text messages with just the type of animal and the road address. One of the most important reasons why I do taxidermy is to conserve and preserve, and I don’t like anything to go to waste.’

For most Hertfordshire residents, the word ‘taxidermy’ probably conjures up memories of visiting the huge collection of creatures at the Natural History Museum in Tring. The practice became popular in the Victorian age, when fashionable aristocrats would fill their homes with stuffed animals from all over the world. Falling out of favour, it then became confined to museums and dusty curiosity shops. Until now. Taxidermy is no longer a dying art, with preserved animals being used to create astonishing contemporary art pieces which sell for thousands of pounds, and local girl Elle is at the forefront of this trend. ‘My work concentrates on the aesthetic, emphasising the natural beauty of the animal by a position or a detail,’ she explains. ‘I feel that all creatures are beautiful in death as well as life. Taxidermy is a way of recycling the animal, where death becomes a chance of rebirth.’

Elle, a former pupil of St Helen’s School for Girls in Northwood, didn’t always have her sights set on taxidermy as a career. ‘Growing up, I actually wanted to study veterinary science,’ she says. ‘But as I developed through school, so did my passion for creativity and craftsmanship. I ended up pursuing the artistic pathway, and took a fine art degree at Loughborough University, but my interests in anatomy and wildlife were always prominent. I wanted to include the study of animals in my practice, and nothing seemed more fitting than being able to create a tangible animal, which is when I decided to try taxidermy. The thing I find most amazing about taxidermy is the ability to deconstruct something and reconstruct it successfully – as a sculptor there is little that is more rewarding. It is a privilege to be able to preserve animals that would otherwise cease to exist, and even more gratifying to do them justice.’

Elle in her workshop

Elle in her workshop - Credit: Archant

Today Elle, a member of the UK Guild of Taxidermists, successfully runs her own business, not only making art by commission but teaching workshops, too. ‘My private studio in Bushey is where my pride and joy is kept,’ she laughs. ‘My chest freezer, full of specimens! I’m strictly ethical about where I source my animals, and use only those that have already passed away.’

The workshops are suitable for beginners or those more advanced in the skills of taxidermy, and Elle provides the specimen, all materials as well as an anatomy lesson. ‘The people who attend my workshops really are anybody and everybody. I have veterinary surgeons, milliners, art students, hen parties, children and fashion designers. I’ve even taught tax collectors.’

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Should you ry your hand (see, you could come away with a fully-mounted guinea pig, jackdaw or stoat. ‘I teach a traditional method, which means that my classes tend to over-run,’ Elle says. ‘The shortest classes I take are my three-hour entomology ones. Rodents take four hours, while birds require a two-day back-to-back workshop.’

Needless to say, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Initial work involves using a scalpel to remove the insides of the animal; washing and drying the empty skin with a hairdryer, and then preserving, before making a ‘body form’ with wire, wool and wood, which is then slotted inside the skin. ‘Every specimen requires different preservatives, and different times to allow it to penetrate the skin,’ Elle explains. ‘This cannot be speeded up or cheated, which is why some DIY taxidermy workshops out there appal me. If the specimen isn’t preserved properly, it can rot. Just as important is the model-making, where you create an anatomically-accurate sculpture of what you took away, to go back in. Creating muscle-definition and body shape is crucial in the success of the piece and stops your animal looking linear.’

Duck re-imagined as a child's pull-along toy

Duck re-imagined as a child's pull-along toy - Credit: Archant

Elle’s unique creations, which include a rat chessboard and bouquet of stuffed mice, have understandably attracted a great deal of attention: she has appeared on TV and in national newspapers, and twice demonstrated her skills at the prestigious Other Art Fair in London. But even though taxidermy is a long-established art form, it is controversial. ‘People do have different opinions about it, but just like the subjective nature of art, I respect them. I know when I go into a gallery I don’t always like every piece of art I see. The most important thing is I have people to support me if I need it. I don’t need everyone to like what I do, that isn’t my concern.’

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