There’s a moment, in the tiled nucleus of taxidermist Polly Morgan’s studio, that I suddenly remember that her trade is essentially in meat.
“I did try defrosting one once in the microwave. It part-cooked it, it was really horrible. It started smelling like dinner” she explains, as she shows me the tiny, unskinned body of a finch, complete from miniature spinal cord to tiny tongue.
After all, it’s easy to forget the grisly process which goes into producing Morgan’s work, which sells in the realm of £85,000.
The artist herself is a petite, softly-spoken blonde, gracefully managing a studio of busy interns, who are doing things to dead animals with scalpels.
As taxidermy goes, she is a poster girl: an English Literature graduate who fell into the craft by working in a Shoreditch bar, before selling her beautiful modern work to the likes of Kate Moss - a fact she wearily rolls her eyes at when I bring it up in conversation.
She explains, “I find that a bit frustrating. I don’t want to be ungrateful. But the thing is, Kate Moss bought some of my work ages ago, but she’s bought everyone’s work - it’s not just me.
“I think the thing that worries me with her is that she’s so strongly associated with fashion, and I see my work as having more longevity as that - or I hope it will.”
Taxidermy’s rise to cool has been a contributing factor to Morgan's success - although her unique take on the art demonstrates she’s more than just another hipster, stuffing something for the sake of putting it in their East London flat.
“It became [in the last decade] far more fashionable to start showing your interests and cluttering your house up and looking like somebody who had a life” she explains.
“Taxidermy may go out of fashion, but I’m not doing straightforward taxidermy in a case, I’m selling it through art galleries.”
(PHOTO: Tessa Angus)
Morgan’s next exhibition, Endless Plains, takes her work away from the twee, vaguely gothic Victoriana which launched her into the art world nearly a decade ago. Gone are the curled-up rats in champagne glasses and robins nesting on Bibles.
“I got sick to death of seeing all that kind of stuff around me. It was definitely something which inspired me at the beginning, but I’ve gotten over that. Making art is like curing yourself of an obsession - once you’ve made something you can leave it behind.”
“My new work is about a corruption of nature. It’s not things as they would happen; birds don’t eat mushrooms, pigs don’t suckle trees, octopuses don’t inhabit dead fox carcasses, generally, but I wanted to do a perverse representation of nature. But I don’t think I’ve pushed it to the realm of fantasy and it’s almost believable.”
In a little room off from the main workshop space, the silicon-cast piglets which are to suckle the giant tree next door are lying on top of one of the five freezers which house Morgan’s specimens until they are to become her work.
They’re like giant Pass the Pigs, with cute, naughty-looking faces and perfect curly tails. They’re strangely rubbery to the touch.
“I didn’t think I’d get that nice fleshiness on them if I taxidermied them” she explains, “when the skin dries, it can look a bit parched.” The cast has been made of a dead piglet which may make up another work, which was sourced through a restaurateur friend.
The insides of her freezers are quite a sight. An entire tupperware of yellow aviary birds sit in one corner, moles are sandwiched in the middle, and black-blue starlings are packed tightly in labelled boxes at the other end - “Just lots of work in progress and dead things.”
(PHOTO: Tessa Angus)
The lid of a chest freezer is opened up to reveal bigger animals, a glossy white gannet next to a jet black cormorant. The latter, she tells me, while brusquely turning it over in her hands, was shot by a fisherman because it was eating his fish, something she thought a “bit mean-spirited”. It was later picked up by a friend and passed on to her. The gannet was found on a beach, in perfect condition, and sent through overnight delivery to her in the post by a stranger.
Why, some might wonder, would somebody ever find themselves making art from dead animals?
“I grew up on a countryside farm,” she explains.
“We had so many bloody animals growing up. But I was always very intrigued about taxidermy and loved the way it looked. I find it hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t have it around. I suppose back then it felt like a kind of trick. When it’s done well, it looks so convincing.”
“Every time I see animals, they run away from me or they decompose. I always just want to hang out with animals and they’re not interested in me, apart from my dogs, maybe.
“I think that side of [taxidermy] really appealed to me, and it’s not harming them either, which I really love. Because I do really love animals, and I don’t really like the idea of having birds in cages or zoos. I wanted something dead because it extends that trick.”
A passing trend? A macabre hobby? Perhaps taxidermy is in the eyes of some.
But where Morgan’s concerned, it’s going to stay around - for as long as it still catches people out, at least.
Polly Morgan will be exhibiting her work at the Vauxhall Art Car Boot Fair, 27 May. Endless Plains opens at All Visual Arts gallery on 8 June.