“An armadillo for you, from Jonathan Ross,” says the courier as he returns a box midway through my interview with Alexis Turner.
Not a line you might hear every day, but for
Alexis this is pretty mundane stuff. Over the past 20 years he has
dealt in natural history and taxidermy, while also building a busy
prop hire company for film, TV and photo shoots which now dominates
his business, London Taxidermy.
His light, airy showroom is an utterly
bizarre place to be - a sort of exotic macabre menagerie in
suburban Southfields in south west London, of all places. A giraffe
greets you as you walk in the door, surrounded by some zebra heads
(their 'stylish' graphic stripes make these particularly popular
with interior decorators) and to one side a stack of Curver boxes
containing various cats and dogs sit waiting to go to
I accidentally tread on an alligator's claw
and instinctively bend down to give it an apologetic pat.
Above: Alexis Turner of London
Having moved the zebra foal out of the way
so we can see each other, Alexis (a Jack Russell curled up at his
feet - also stuffed) tells me about how he got into this strange
niche - a far cry from his early career as a DJ and TV presenter in
the 1980s when he was in his 20s. Having decided that hosting a
live pop show for teenagers was not for him, he set up a
recruitment company in Mayfair with his now wife. This grew quickly
but three years later the recession of the early 1990s killed the
It was then, with nothing to lose, that
Alexis turned to dealing. From an early age, taxidermy had
intrigued him - as a child he attended auctions with his father and
would often bid on bits of taxidermy, most of which he says were
Taxidermy has risen enormously in popularity
over the past decade, particularly in the last five years, and a
lot of young people are particularly interested in the area - many
of Alexis' clients are in their twenties and thirties, including a
lot of art students who buy and hire pieces for installations and
Alexis credits taxidermy's increasing
acceptability in part to its widespread use by fashion designers,
such as the late Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy, and
a new wave of taxidermy artists, notably Polly Morgan and Kate
MccGwire - are all regular clients. And alongside hiring pieces,
Jonathan Ross often buys birthday and Christmas presents for his
wife from Alexis.
Taxidermy seems to have largely shrugged off
its unsavoury, not to mention unethical, image of moth-eaten trophy
kills gathering dust in country houses and proof of its current
appeal was underlined by the enormous prices fetched at Christie's
South Kensington's sale of the stock from Will Fisher's
Jamb last year when a stuffed bulldog made £15,500 and two
Victorian cased chihuahuas fetched £12,000 and £16,000 each.
Although this sale was an anomaly - Alexis
had an influx of people approaching him with taxidermy dogs after
the auction, expecting five-figure sums - it still reflects the
broader revival of the market.
"Ten years ago similar taxidermy would never
have made anywhere near that much money, and it was interesting
that some of the pieces in that sale made more than some of the
furniture and works of art," he said.
It was in 1992 at Rosebery's auctioneers in
South London that Alexis made his first purchase that set him on
this particular dealing path: a large Victorian case of birds for
£20 which, looking back, he says was "rubbish". But he split it up,
mounted each bird individually and sold them onto a dealer at a
decent profit. He was hooked.
Discovering ATG was also instrumental: "I
saw a dealer reading a copy in his car, and realised that's how
everyone knew where all these auctions were!"
Although at first he bought anything he
could afford - mainly from "country house attic sales, with the
emphasis on attic" - it was seeing an advert in ATG in 1996 for
Lay sale in Penzance, mentioning a "natural history
collection", that was the fateful moment.
It was, in fact, the taxidermy collection
from St Michael's Mount. Alexis booked a phone line for the whole
day and bought over 100 of the 180 lots, kick-starting his
taxidermy career, as he sold on much of the collection quickly,
introducing him to key contacts in the market that he still deals
Then in 2005 came his lucky break, the
private purchase of an entire natural history museum, some of which
he still has today.
However, taxidermy's rising popularity is a
double-edged sword for Alexis as good antique pieces are much more
difficult to get hold of. "Ten years ago I could buy what I wanted
at auction but the internet has changed things enormously.
"I used to get strange looks buying
taxidermy at Kempton Market - I was 'the man who buys dead things'.
I remember walking out of Kempton with a thoroughbred foal under my
arm and I got some disparaging comments. But it had died of natural
causes; no one would intentionally kill a thoroughbred foal!"
I ask him if he has often come up against
opposition from those who think taxidermy is unethical. "Generally
not, because the people who contact me are interested in it.
Nowadays people are much more educated about taxidermy and they
understand that a lot more legislation has been brought in to
regulate it. So it's now an ethical trade and a legal trade.
"If things are pre-1947 (the CITES cut-off
point) it seems ludicrous to destroy it. So it's just a matter of
personal taste - a lot of people would not want a tigerskin rug in
their home, but there's nothing wrong with it if it's legal."
However, he warns people to be very
cautious, particularly about buying from eBay - items could be
infested if nothing else.
"You have to be careful as it's amazing how
many things do need paperwork. Every week I look through the
auctions and see illegal things being offered for sale.
"I also see illegal things at antiques fairs
and it's not because people are trying to sell items against the
law, it's because they don't realise they need paperwork for many
animals. Things like birds of prey are not endangered but they are
protected and they all need Article 10 licences, and strictly
speaking you need a paper trail for everything.
"If you can prove something is pre-1947 then
there is no need but for example, birds of prey which were
legitimately stuffed in the 1980s, have to have an Article 10
licence before they can be sold on - you can apply for one from
DEFRA providing you have a DoE number".
He adds that swordfish bills, popular
decorative pieces which appear frequently at auction and at fairs,
all need an Article 10 licence regardless of their age, pre-1947 or
not, unless they're mounted in some way that is original to the
It's a minefield for the uninitiated so
Alexis advises contacting DEFRA if you are unsure.
"I think strict legislation, although
complicated, has helped taxidermy to become more acceptable. And
artists like Polly Morgan have done a good job explaining that
everything used has died accidentally or naturally - it's road
kill, birds that have flown into power lines, exotic animals that
have come from zoos or wildlife sanctuaries etc."
About ten years ago, Alexis started the prop
hire side of the business, with the help of some contacts in the
film industry, to provide some bread-and-butter constant
"I realised that dealing in antique natural
history was becoming more difficult, finding good things was
getting harder, and as taxidermy got more popular it got more
expensive - sometimes I'd be bidding against my clients for
As a result, much of Alexis' stock is
modern, as pieces hired for use in photographic shoots must be
perfect to withstand close-up shots. He works with a handful of
taxidermists, calling them to place an order for maybe 20 crows.
Such common species they will often have in the freezer. Other more
exotic items, a flamingo perhaps, they find for him.
The mass appeal of taxidermy encouraged the
publishers Thames and Hudson to approach Alexis last year about
writing a book on the subject: "There was no high-end,
comprehensive survey on taxidermy, which looked at the history,
alongside museums devoted to it and its use in art, fashion and
interiors." The result, a stylish coffee table hardback, called
simply Taxidermy, will be published on May 20, priced at