When did you start painting taxidermy specimens?
My first paintings of specimens were of insects from the Oxford University Museum. Each painting depicted a single specimen, much larger than life, closer in scale to a human than an insect. At this size the insects seemed to take on human characteristics. I painted the specimens faithfully, reproducing the damage they had suffered as well as their fragile beauty.
My first painting of taxidermy specimens was The Hummingbird Tree. It was based on the oldest – and possibly the most spectacular – display case in the Natural History Museum containing about 500 birds on a single tree. It was a very large painting that took about eight months to make. I was inspired by the way in which a case like this can combine reality and fantasy – the real presence of such a variety of birds with the preposterous fantasy of having them all together on one tree.
Why are you particularly drawn to specimens that are kept in storage?
The first paintings I made of animals in storage were from the Natural History Museum storage depot. To get in you go through a reception area, down a set of stairs and along different corridors to arrive at a huge pair of red doors, you then pass through two separate entrance spaces – the doors you have just come through are closed before the next ones are opened to prevent contamination. When the final doors open the sight is breathtaking – a huge icy warehouse filled from floor to ceiling with stuffed animals and skeletons.
What interested me most about the Horniman stores were the animal and birds wrapped in plastic. There is something uncanny about these specimens that are cared for and conserved, wrapped and concealed – they seem to become ghosts of themselves. Storage facilities are like the subconscious of the museum; they conjure up childhood stories where objects come alive at night. It is as if these creatures have hidden lives and histories; they can still be alive in the imagination of the viewer.
There’s a current vogue for taxidermy – why do you think this is?
A stuffed animal is always a strange thing to look at, a representation of a creature that couldn’t be more realistic, apart from the fact that it doesn’t move. At its very best, taxidermy is animal sculpture with real skin. Striking dioramas, like the ones in the American Museum of Natural History, are a fantastic way of engaging the public with the collections.
Our relationship with the natural world is a hugely important subject for contemporary artists and this includes how the natural world is and has been represented, and the images that we have of it, including historical representations. A re-evaluation of the importance of these older methods of presenting our knowledge about the natural world has certainly fuelled artists’ interest in taxidermy.
Do you have a favourite painting in the exhibition? And a favourite specimen from the Horniman’s store?
My favourite painting at the moment it is the small piece Face Monkey, a portrait of an animal that is partially concealed by its transparent plastic covering. When I make a painting I spend a lot of time looking at the image, knowing it, and the paintings that I like most always surprise me when I look at them again.
My favourite specimen from the collection store is the dog in a box, which became the painting Nest. I borrowed the dog from the Horniman for an exhibition of animal portraits that I curated for the New Art Gallery Walsall. We showed it still inside the box full of tissue paper with the lid lying beside it. The public response was extraordinary, people really loved it, and it was a centerpiece to the exhibition.
What do you love about the Horniman?
Apart from the work that I am doing with the museum, the Horniman it is a place that I visit with my kids, it has a huge presence in the community and people will visit it again and again. It has a mixed and idiosyncratic collection that inspires curiosity in people. The centrepiece of the natural history displays is a gigantic walrus acquired in 1893 that was overstuffed by taxidermists, unfamiliar with how the animal was supposed to look. This has become an iconic specimen for the museum, an object for public conversation and speculation. In the time that I have been working with the collections I have very much enjoyed the commitment and enthusiasm of the people that work here.
What are you hoping to achieve with the exhibition?
I want to inspire people, children and adults, with a sense of wonder and to pass on the pleasure and excitement that I get when I’m looking at specimens and objects in a collection. This exhibition will be a cabinet of curiosities that echoes the ways in which these storage places contain strange and fascinating things that are usually hidden from the public view. I would like people to be captivated by specimens and objects that have never been seen in the museum before.
Perhaps more than anything, I want it to provoke people to think about our relationships to collecting, to the natural world and to animals. I hope that the paintings in their obsessive attention to detail and use of scale can do this, shown the alongside some of the things that have inspired them. The paintings in the show will come from my work with the Horniman and visits to the stores of the Natural History Museum and the Wellcome Collection.
Finally, why should people donate to this project?
Museums are continually exploring different and innovative ways to make their collections known to the public and I feel that artists should be part of this process. People should donate to this project if they think that the exhibition is a good idea and that it worth putting on. It will show visitors a side of the Horniman Museum that they have never seen before, the hidden Horniman. I would like to think that seeing this exhibition might expand their understanding of the broader work of the museum and the scope if its collections.
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