Taxidermy: the art of death

PUBLISHED: 13:36 29 March 2016 | UPDATED: 13:36 29 March 2016

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Rough Old Glass

Taxidermy has long been a collectable - we meet Devon artist Paul Broomfield who has turned the ancient craft into an artform

Animals have been preserved in celebration of their lives for many thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians would mummify and decorate jackals who were associated with Anubis, the god of embalming. A Devon artist is now drawing on this rich history to create new works of art that assault every sense with both boldness and subtlety.

Paul Broomfield lives and works just outside Barnstaple. He is one of a new movement of contemporary taxidermy artists who are taking this age-old practice to new heights, the Financial Times’ ‘how to spend it’ section recently describing it as “pop taxidermy”.

“The history of taxidermy intrigues me. Mummified cats and dogs wrapped in linen and gilded in tribute to their spirits is a powerful message from our ancestors,” says Paul. “As a child I was fascinated by a collection of taxidermy in a small natural history museum in Hampshire where I grew up. One of the most powerful memories is of birds hanging from the ceiling captured in flight.”

Born in the fishing village of Emsworth in 1969, Paul’s interest and fascination with the ocean, nature, taxidermy and curiosities grew from an early age. His grandfather Ted Loader was a noted eel fisherman and naïve painter, and while this helped ignite Paul’s creativity, he classes himself as an ‘outsider artist’ having never had formal training after studying art as a schoolboy.

His work follows the thinking of Marcel Proust, the early 20th century novelist who wrote In search of lost time (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu), which examines the concept of a memory triggered by an object.

Ordinary items are exalted by Paul, partially adorned with real gold and silver, and placed with the care of a meticulous collector to provoke thought and imagination of their symbolic meanings. The Flight of the Soul is perhaps one of Paul Broomfield’s most striking pieces. It features a part-gilded buzzard, mounted with vintage clock face and bottles, with antiqued mirror glass in a bespoke case. Its Proustian inspiration is the stark cry of buzzards soaring over his rural North Devon studio, which stirs both childhood memories and the ancient myth that the souls of children are carried by birds.

While the use of animals can court controversy, the artist stresses that ethics are paramount and he only uses antique taxidermy or creatures that have died naturally and have been properly licensed.

“I’m passionate about our wildlife and the environment,” he said. “I would never harm any creature, and I have made it my mission to re-use as much material as possible.” He feels so strongly about the issue that he has reported abuse by modern taxidermists that he has found online.

“I seek out Victorian and Edwardian taxidermy and other antique objects that I restore to create new art inspired by experiences in life, memories and the beauty of the area where we live. I use ancient techniques like gilding animals and verre églomisé in my work. Using gold and silver to decorate objects dates back thousands of years to the time of Egypt’s pyramids and was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey.”

He trained as a cabinet-maker, and took a carving and gilding apprenticeship with David Goodman, the fine art framer and paintings conservator, framing the art of luminaries for the Tate Gallery, the V&A and the National Gallery. Paul worked as a freelance conservator for the National Trust and English Heritage for ten years before moving to France where he spent several years sourcing unusual antique objects at markets that he now uses in his art.

Returning from France in 2007 Paul Broomfield now lives and works in North Devon with his partner Charlotte Hunter, and enjoys surfing, collecting vintage surfboards and fishing in his spare time.

His art is already attracting high profile collectors, and he will be exhibiting in a group show curated by Lee Sharrock, Global PR Director for Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, which takes place at the Lights of Soho Gallery in London between 14 April and 28 May 2016.

His work is also on display at Broomhill Art Hotel at Muddiford in North Devon, and you can find out more about the artist on his website

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