Polly Morgan originally took up taxidermy as a hobby after graduating from London’s Queen Mary University with a degree in English Literature. Having studied with Scottish taxidermist George Jamieson, Morgan began to play with and dismantle taxidermy traditions, creating sculptures that brought her work to the attention of many notable collectors and curators both in Britain and internationally. Commissioned first by the East London Restaurant Bistrotheque, Banksy soon came across her work. In 2005 the Graffiti artist included Morgan in the annual exhibition ‘Santa’s Ghetto’ on London’s Oxford Street. Since then, Morgan has become a member of the UK Guild of Taxidermists, published the book ‘Psychopomps’ (2011) and built up an impressive CV, exhibiting with established galleries such as White Cube. Marguerite visited Morgan at her home, a converted Truman Brewery pub in South London, to discuss her profession and how her work has evolved over the years, whilst also enjoying her rather impressive art collection.
When did your fascination with taxidermy begin?
It started when I was a child, I think I can trace it to when I was 13 maybe even 12. At secondary school I had a friend whose dad collected taxidermy. He collected anthropomorphised scenes - like a boxing ring with toads. Funny gimmicky things really. I just remember thinking they were great and that I wanted to collect them. Because I had never met a taxidermist I always assumed it was something historical that people didn’t really do anymore and to an extent this is true, there were and still are very few people doing it. So it is very much a fascination that began from a young age.
You didn’t go to art school, instead you went to University to study English Literature - did university help inform your subject matter?
I sadly didn’t get huge amounts out of university. In hindsight I should have gone to Art School. University wasn’t practical enough for me - I love making things and using my hands. I am not good at sitting still and listening quietly, so lectures didn’t suit me! I am far more hands on. I suppose some of the literature did help inform my subject matter earlier on in my career as a taxidermist.
Can you tell me about your time living in Shoreditch after graduating from University - this is when you began to create works?
Yes, I was 23 and in the aimless patch most young people go through after university. I was working in a bar in Shoreditch and fell in with the art crowd living and working around there. There was nothing really there in that part of town. I think the bar I worked as was the second to open in that area. It was a wasteland; people living in enormous studios and having big parties - a great place to be growing up. I was galvanised by all the friends I made and used to make things in my spare time from being influenced by all the creativity around me. Then when I was promoted to manager at the bar I got to live above the shop. I suddenly had loads of room and not very much stuff to decorate the space - before then I had been living in shoe box sized rooms! I wanted to buy some taxidermy, I had a specific idea of how I wanted it displayed and what it needed to look like but no one was offering this. So, I made my own and that was that! I initially purchased a DIY book on taxidermy but realised I needed more guidance so looked up taxidermists online. Most were in America but there was one in Scotland - George Jamieson. I contacted him and went up to Edinburgh.
Would you say George Jamieson helped shape your career as a taxidermist?
In terms of how I approached taxidermy, no. We had a funny relationship in that he was always bemused by what I was up to but in a sweet way - because it was so contemporary - but he was always so helpful. He would help me with whatever I was trying to do but his approach was far more traditional. Jamieson wanted his taxidermy to look alive, whereas I would often want it to look dead - pulling the legs off a bird - changing it in some way to make it look unique and different to its original state. I don’t think I could have achieved what I have without him. It was wonderful working alongside him - in such an informal apprenticeship.
How does one become a taxidermist these days - are there courses available?
There is no formal training in England, even if I had wanted it I wouldn’t have been able to get it! I came across a 3 year course somewhere in, I think, Zurich but other than that it is a question of becoming an apprentice, which is fine by me as I strongly believe that the best way to learn is on the job - to get stuck in.
Did you always know you wanted to be a taxidermist?
I had no grand plan when I started out. I never thought it would become my bread and butter. It was a fortuitous set of circumstances; the friends I had and where I was hanging out really helped me. But having said that, I did always take it very seriously.
With a background in English Literature, who are your favourite authors?
I am a big fan of James Salter. I love the book ‘The Confederacy of Dunces’ by the American writer John Kennedy Toole. It’s an amazing work, very funny. He only wrote this one book, tried to get it published everywhere and no one wanted it. Subsequently he killed himself. Then his mother, who thought it was a work of genius, continued to try and pitch it to publishing companies - everyone thought she was mad. Finally one publicist picked it up and saw its potential. Now it’s a huge cult classic. Not everyone has heard of it but those who have are passionate about it. I’m not into the literature people would probably presume I would be into - like Gothic Literature. I am far more light hearted!
Your work appears to be inspired by literature to a certain extent - namely mythology?
I guess in an organic way yes. I had a show in 2010 at The Haunch of Venison and that was, I suppose, the most mythological. I called it Psychopomps, which is a term to describe winged spirits that escort you from life to death. So I guess that was quite a conscious decision. At that time I was reading some literature around mythology and it would have naturally fed into my work.
I read an interview where you discuss your approach to taxidermy and that you only use animals that have died naturally; “I didn’t want to sentimentalise nature”…“I wanted to show it as it is; cannibalistic, predatory and unnerving” - can you explain how you aim to showcase this in your work?
I don’t do one because of the other. I think when it comes to this idea of showing the cannibalistic, predatory and unnerving nature of taxidermy that is mentioned above I would have been talking about it with regards to an exhibition I had in 2012 called Endless Plains. I made works based on the host/parasite relationship and the way in which the death of one thing - say a dead bird - will rot and then become the nesting site for a 1000 new lives as flies will lay eggs which will then breed maggots. It is a repellant thing to us but when you analyse it you realise it is a beautiful thing. One animal dies so that hundreds of other creatures can live. I made that show just after I nearly died - my appendix burst and I developed peritonitis and gangrene. My own body had begun to rot and I had a post op infection. I was thinking a lot about the fact part of my body had died and become the host to parasites. It always interests me I guess as I am constantly cutting up dead animals and often come across odd aliments in animals that on the outside look perfectly normal, but on the inside are damaged. I guess suddenly having the scalpel turned on my own body had a profound impact on me.
You say your work has changed; can you explain how?
I think it boils down to my tastes and opinions changing. Naturally it is a reflection of what is going on in your head. I have a far more minimalist aesthetic than I used to. In the early days I was more keen to clutter a place with things that intrigued me (books, artefacts, e.t.c) whereas the older I get the more I’ve stripped everything back - I find it conducive to a clear head and working well. I think it has something to do with ageing. The older I get the less stuff I want - the same goes for my taste in art. I am much more interested in abstract minimalist works. My work definitely reflects that now, and architecture also. Modern buildings. A lot of the plinths I have been making - in the beginning I would have a plinth made in wood and would put my work on top of it. I didn’t like the fact there had to be a plinth I always wanted to find a way to make things float so they could just hang there! But I gradually realised the plinth is an integral part of the work and something you can’t avoid. I started to embrace it to the point that now they are an integral part of the work.
Can you talk me through your creative process?
It’s changed a lot since the beginning. There is always an element of instinct - but I think there was more of this in the beginning. I didn’t know what I was doing so much back then. Initially when I was making I didn’t have the thought that I would then be exhibiting whereas now I am far more in tune with what it is that I want to do with the animals I am working with and generally what I want with the end result.
Where do you source your animals from?
Once I know what it is I’m looking for I try to find people who might be there at the point of death. Usually breeders, sometimes vets. I occasionally get total strangers email me to let me know their cat has brought something in or a bird has died flying into their window.
Which are your favourite animals to use?
I would say that snakes are my favourite to work with at the moment as I enjoy the freedom they allow to create more abstract sculptures.
If you could invite 4 artists to dinner, who would it be?
Donald Judd, Ron Nagle, Agnes Martin and Anni Albers (she sounded like great company!).
If you could own one art work what would it be?
Any of Ron Nagle’s ceramic sculptures. The surfaces and shapes he makes are edible looking and their simplicity pleasing to my eye.
What would your advice be you a young creative starting out in the industry?
That you should go to art school. It is important to be part of a community - be among your peers - those that inspire you.