Waking the Dead
By Kelly Beswick
Taxidermy is firmly back in fashion, but in it’s modern guise it’s about ethically sourced animals and artistic pieces and no one better exemplifies today’s practitioners than East London based artist Harriet Horton, whose colourful, neon detailed creations are springing up all over town
Not since the Victorian era has stuffing dead animals been so bang on trend, with art made from corpses gracing some of the area’s most fashionable bars, pubs and abodes. These days, however, it’s less about creating as life-like a replica of the deceased creature as possible and more about pushing boundaries and altering perceptions, but with respectfulness and ethicality at modern taxidermy’s core. And at the vanguard of this movement is Harriet Horton, a well-spoken 31-year-old, whose work lends the ancient art a surreal and playful pop twist, bringing neon lighting and vibrant colour to the ever-growing party.
Harriet, who lives near Aldgate East and has a studio in Dalston, is used to people balking at the medium in which she works despite the likes of Damien Hirst and Polly Morgan having led the way. “Taxidermy is still seen as being a bit creepy and macabre,” she says. “There’s this really common misconception that to practice it you must somehow hate animals when the complete opposite is true. Every taxidermist I’ve met is a fervent animal lover, which is usually why they got into it in the first place. You get to see the animals so close up it gives you a real sense of what they are like. It was this curiosity of seeing something in such incredible detail that the Victorians loved.”
Not that Harriet is a fan of traditional taxidermy. “I find a lot of the old stuff awful and vile,” she says. “I particularly hate trophy heads. I remember visiting antique shops with my mum as a child and seeing these horrible glassy eyed animals staring down at me and being totally repulsed by them. I’ve never liked that gothic quality and it’s something I’ve desperately tried to avoid with my work.”
Largely self-taught, apart from a short course with renowned Edinburgh based taxidermist George Jameson, tutor to the aforementioned Polly Morgan, Harriet honed her stuffing skills through practicing at home of an evening and at weekends, while holding down a means to an
end job. “At first I didn’t really know where I was going with it,” she admits. “And after a while I started to get bored with what I was producing. That’s when I began making the positions slightly less authentic and introducing a bit of colour.
“My first piece using neon was a canary under a beautiful vintage glass dome with the word canary written in yellow neon. That was it for me – I’d found what I was looking for. Neon is just the best thing, adding temperature and changing the mood. It’s such a powerful material that does a lot of my work for me. Through neon I discovered the aesthetic I’d been trying to achieve.”
Harriet is happy to fashion her pieces from a variety of animals – birds, rats, squirrels, foxes and stoats have all featured – but with the one proviso, that they are ethically sourced. “Most of the animals I use have died naturally, like road casualties or birds flying into windows,” she says. “Also, the more my name gets out the more people know to send me stuff. Just the other day I got a text from a friend asking if I was around because there was this dead fox and the guy who had found it in his garden specifically wanted to give it to a taxidermist.”
Being the go to girl to give dead animals might not be to most people’s taste, but as Harriet explains: “It’s one of the best ways of actually knowing the provenance of the creature. Otherwise you’re relying on what people are telling you, which, as we know with food, can never be completely failsafe. That said, in my early days of taxidermy, when I was practicing, I did buy raw carcasses without knowing for sure where they came from. Now however, I am so much more consciously aware. I think that comes from having these animals tangibly in your hands – that really makes you question the ethics.” So much so in fact that Harriet admits to having gone from being a big meat eater to first pescetarian, then vegetarian and now a “struggling” vegan as a direct result of the taxidermy.
“I love what I do such much, but it is f****** horrible, it’s really gross,” Harriet admits. “Sometimes, especially when I’m hungover, I just wish I’d done illustration instead.” Not that she’s likely to give up the taxidermy any time soon, with her work now attracting the attention of many buyers (prices start at £1,000 for an original, £50 for a print) and galleries alike.