Taxidermy, the art of preserving and stuffing dead animals, has everything east London needs to secure its reputation as a hipster haven: kitsch, irony, randomness, a vintage feel, and a slight air of sophistication.
“If the mainstream reaction to taxidermy is to be creeped out, the counter-culture reaction is to be fascinated and unflinching”, says Scott Bibus, founder of the Association of Rogue Taxidermists.
Indeed, walk through Brick Lane and you’ll find a crudely stuffed fox or awkward mid-flight owl nestled among the clothes in almost every vintage shop. If you plan to browse in Pelicans and Parrots on Stoke Newington Road expect to be judged by an entire wall of mounted antelope faces.
Even French restaurant ‘Les Trois Garcons’ in Shoreditch has a look that recalls a Victorian curiosity cupboard. Chandeliers and vintage handbags hang from the ceiling and bejewelled, stuffed animals (including an angel-winged bulldog and a tiara-wearing Tiger) provide charming company while you eat.
There’s no doubt that lately, the traditional shrieks of horror have become squeals of delight. And it’s not just a Hackney phenomenon. Urban Outfitters sells cardboard deer heads, and Juicy Couture recently bought a woodland of antelope, deer and elk heads to decorate their stores.
But why has the taxidermy comeback had such a hipster-vibe, and why are dead creatures so synonymous with trendy urbanites?
The answer is: authenticity.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a generation that spend so much time in its own head, staring at a screen, feel compelled to collect real, tactile objects with an unbreakable connection with the physical world.
The longing to ‘unplug’ and reconnect with nature has led to a rejection of mass-produced IKEA furniture and the sleek, space-age white plastic of modernism which has been en-vogue with hipsters for decades. The new antiquers and steampunks of the naughties are enamoured with Victorian elegance and Darwin-inspired curiousity about animal species and their mutations.
Just like the Victorians, London’s urbanised adolescents are ravenous collectors. Armchair Victorian explorers revered their cabinets of curiousities adorned with beasts from the exotic New World.
As naturalists brought exotic species home from other continents, the Victorian elite filled their parlours with domed birds, butterfly cases, and even their own stuffed pets. Back then, every hoof and claw was transformed into an exciting new object, from zoological lamps (kerosene lamps made from swans or monkeys) to ‘his and her’ elephant heads. Fashionable hairstyles even incorporated preserved humming birds.
But today’s Londoners may need the illusion of nature more than the Victorians needed the exotica of it. As animal species vanish globally at an alarming rate, no wonder taxidermy is making a comeback; nothing is a more life-like souvenir.
Likewise, Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors on Mare Street, Hackney brings the Victorian ‘Wunderkabinett’ (literally: cabinet of wonders) to the Hackney shop-window in an act of eccentric nostalgia and pure exhibitionism.
Wynd’s collection of taxidermy – and many more oddities – takes the art form to a place even most Hoxton hipsters would consider a bit too far. Viktor’s shop is open daily though private tours can be made by appointment (not for the faint-hearted).
Taxidermy is the direct opposite to a lifestyle that communicates in bits and bytes. As east London becomes increasingly urban, boxed in by rail networks, factories and velodromes, what was once familiarly British – wildlife and the outdoors – is now the ultimate exotic experience.
Just please don’t tell Peaches Geldof about the hummingbird hair-do.