Thursday, 12 March 2009

Taxidermy – the art of a devoted animal lover

It was a Harry Potter moment. Standing alone in Douglas Coates's shop in Llangollen, North Wales, I felt compelled to stroke the plumage of an achingly beautiful snowy owl.

Watching me all the while was the beady eye of a 13lbs 12oz brown trout, apparently a British record.

Click here to see more pictures

At my feet was a fox curled up as if asleep, unperturbed by a large, prowling mountain lion picking its way across a mountain outcrop, while a badger went about its business untroubled by either of them.

Douglas Coates, you see, is a professional taxidermist and a more fascinating man, passionate about natural history, collecting, acquiring knowledge and his love of Mother Nature and her creatures, I have yet to meet.

I admit, I thought long and hard about this week's topic because I knew I would be writing about a sensitive subject. Douglas Coates treats his art with the utmost sensitivity.

Despite owning a large number of mounted and preserved wild animals, both pieces for sale

in his shop and in his own personal, private collection, Douglas is a nature lover.

For a man who cannot bear to see a dog ill treated -- he has rescued several -- it is no surprise when he explains that with the exception of the Victorian examples in his collection, all of the creatures with which he comes into contact have died from natural causes.

The snowy owl, for example, he had been commissioned to preserve for its owner, a breeder of the birds. The mountain lion, similarly, had died of old age in a wildlife park.

So with that concern behind me, I learned that Douglas, 58, inherited his love of natural history and had started collecting bones and feathers and suchlike as a schoolboy.

He was born in Jamaica into a well-to-do family with a strong military history. He moved to Llangollen aged three and today finds it difficult to walk through the town without being hailed at every turn by people who know him.

While other boys were given train sets and Dinky cars for birthday and Christmas presents, Douglas was given a stuffed bird or other creature, which he then proceeded to take to bits to see how it was made.

In those days, the art of taxidermy was a closed shop. No one who practised it was prepared to give any time to a youngster keen to learn the skill, and so Douglas taught himself.

As a young man, he served his time as a plasterer and for a while combined his job with his hobby. The late 1960s saw a revival of interest in taxidermy and Douglas decided to devote his time entirely to his hobby, becoming a founder member of the Guild of Taxidermists.

A new guild was formed subsequently and membership was by invitation only, with Douglas being one of its long-standing members.

Today, he both preserves and sets new specimens, either to sell in his shop, Riverside Taxidermy in Mill Street, Llangollen, or to fulfil commissions from around the world. He will also undertake restoration of Victorian pieces, either to order or for stock.

I suspect, however, that at least as much time is spent in detective work learning more about Victorian taxidermy and taxidermists and finding more of the finest examples for his private collection.

A long-standing collaboration with retired zoologist and taxidermy specialist Dr Pat Morris has resulted in numerous books on the subject. Douglas does the research and Dr Morris the writing.

The latest is about the celebrated Aberystwyth taxidermists Hutchings who were in business from 1860 to 1942.

That company, founded by James Hutchings (1842/3-1929) is worthy of an entirely separate column but suffice it to say that outside London, it produced some of the most significant specimens in the country, many of which are now in Welsh museums.

In addition to its obvious quality, Hutchings' work also stands out for its distinctive glass-fronted cases, which a collector with an eye to detail like Douglas can spot at 50 paces.

He has spent 30 years researching the Hutchings firm and his personal collection contains many examples of their work, several of which were used to illustrate the book.

Another firm represented by a large number of specimens in Douglas's collection is Van Ingen, which was based in Mysore in India, when the days of the Raj saw a booming business in big game hunting.

One of the largest and most famous of all taxidermists, Van Ingen employed 130 workers at its height in 1922.

Van Ingen specimens can be found around the world and although strongly against modern-day big game hunting, Douglas has made it his business to seek out some of the best for the walls of his home. Dr Morris has also written a book about the company -- with the research from Douglas Coates.

It is Douglas's fascination with research that makes his collection so absorbing. He owns a large library of books on the subject, one of which, Fauna of Shropshire, written in 1899 by H. Edward Forrest, is illustrated with pictures of cases of preserved birds from the collection of John Rock (1817-1881) who lived at Clungunford Hall, outside Ludlow.

Through painstaking detective work, Douglas tracked down the cases and one now stands in his sittingroom. Others used in the book can be seen in Ludlow Museum.

In another instance, he came across the old invoice from a taxidermist for work done to preserve and set a swan. Douglas contacted the name of the family on the invoice and by following lead after lead as the piece changed hands, he was ultimately able to acquire it. The case now stands in his hallway.

So what of the future? Sadly, but not surprisingly, good Victorian examples are few and far between. The days when cases of stuffed animals and birds were turfed out because they were considered to be in bad taste are long gone.

Now, good examples attract high prices with rare or extinct creatures selling for a premium over the ordinary.

Equally, the number of trained and qualified taxidermists is dwindling. Douglas Coates is one of a dying breed in more ways than one.

 Pictures show from top:

Douglas with the snowy owl commissioned by a breeder of the birds

Douglas with the case of birds from Clungunford Hall

Your stick sir. A Victorian novelty stick stand modelled with a standing fox

Below, Do not disturb - the sleeping fox in Douglas's shop

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Anonymous Taxidermy said...

Love the snowy owl & foxes. Looks like a couple dozen birds in that case... NICE! Thanks for sharing. Cheers!

4 November 2009 at 11:29  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Thanks you for your kind comments. I thought long and hard about posting this story, but Douglas Coates is at one with Nature, not in conflict with Her. I'm pleased you enjoyed it.

4 November 2009 at 12:07  
Anonymous Felix Fox said...

this article is a load of rubbish, you obviously have been lead by the person your writing about as to what to say, just a load of crap

8 September 2010 at 14:56  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Dear Mr Fox
Thank you for your comment, I'm all in favour of open debate. Let me assure you that in the 35-plus years I have been a practising journalist - time served and professionally qualified - no one has ever led me to write something which I did not believe in. You are welcome to your opinion, but I don't share it.

9 September 2010 at 02:15  
Anonymous Andrea Smith said...

Great article!!!

22 September 2010 at 10:55  
Anonymous Bronwen Irene Williams said...

What our creator crafted for this world that we may hold in awsome wonder, Douglas strive's to re-create the essence of life, captured for eternity demonstrating his love of the animal kingdom.

2 December 2010 at 15:56  
Anonymous Good taxidermist - Wild About Britain said...

[...] Good taxidermist Worth checking Doug Coates of Llangollen, North Wales too. Taxidermy – the art of a devoted animal lover | WriteAntiques Ric [...]

7 December 2010 at 04:58  
Anonymous Dave said...

Please could you tell me what a stuffed squirrel is worth it is dated on the glass box 1923

12 May 2011 at 02:49  
Anonymous icy said...

Great Collections!
I was wondering if maybe you could recommend to where i could sell a collection of Philippine Birds, about 1000 items all in all. The collection is in such a good condition. The owner though is also a taxidermy and he's getting old. None of his children is interested in keeping and caring for collections. So he's afraid that when he passes on, the birds would just be thrown away. He's selling the whole collection for $35,000.
Thank you.

3 July 2011 at 20:15  

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