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Fish Taxidermy

December 8 2008

The art of taxidermy today remains very much alive, although gone are the days of every town having its own taxidermist. Today's exponents, however, still use the same basic techniques as their forbears.

The oldest existing specimen is said to be a rhinoceros dating from the 16th century, but the collector is highly unlikely to come across anything preserved before 1850. Along with the increased interest in antique fishing tackle, cased and mounted fish are now considered highly collectable and although prices have dropped slightly from the dizzy heights reached a few years ago they are now starting to rise again.

The most sought after cases were produced by John Cooper & Sons of Radnor Street, London. The company was started in the 1830's but most of the `Cooper' cases around now date from the 1870's to 1950. Most of the fish were displayed in bowfront glass cases edged with gold line trim and gilt lettering. Occasionally the details of the fish were written inside instead, presumably when insufficient funds were available for the full works! Even if no details exist it is still possible for an expert to date the case as their style changed throughout the years. Early cases had pale blue backgrounds with an abundance of reeds and groundwork. By the 1950's this had progressed to a green backing with a sparse interior. The fish gradually became more heavily painted with every scale accentuated. The trading label along with their address changed frequently and is another helpful factor in dating them accurately. Age is not a particular concern when it comes to value - more consideration is given to the size of fish for its species, the quality of the mounting and the overall aesthetic appearance. Multiple cases and those with original gold lettering are worth a premium. Fish taxidermy tended to be more specialised than other forms and as Cooper's fame grew fish were sent to them from all over the country and although they appeared to have the monopoly other equally good firms were in business. One of these was W. F. Homer, also of London and although examples of their work may be harder to find the search is usually well rewarded as their cases are most attractive. Malloch of Perth also produced excellent specimens, many of which were finely painted plaster casts of trout and salmon often mounted in unique barrel shaped cases. They also produced many of the carved wood game fish earlier this century.

If you are lucky enough to find an old case of fish, but in a damaged and sorry state - do not despair! More can be done to restore these back to their former glory than any other form of taxidermy and unlike many antiques, good quality restoration will hardly detract from its value.

A number of auction houses now run specialist piscatorial sales. But beware, this can be shaky ground for the uninitiated. Fakes abound and are sometimes hard to distinguish from the genuine article even for the experts. Buying from a reputable dealer will bring you peace of mind and is likely to be cheaper too.
So what if you land your dream fish and decide to have it preserved for posterity? No problem, although these days it is normally only game or sea fish that are mounted. The most important thing to remember is NEVER gut the fish as this will ruin the whole procedure. Wrap your catch in plenty of newspaper, taking care not to damage the fins and place in a freezer as soon as possible. Once frozen it can safely remain there for several months. Mounting your trophy can be a long process (fortunately giving you a breathing space to save up for the high cost!). The recent world record 1331b eel set up by us took around five months to complete. Much of this is drying time, depending on the size and oil content of the fish and speeding up this process will only produce a poor result in the long term. After defrosting, the fish is cut along the lateral line, skinned out and cured with a preserving solution. Meanwhile a false inside (a mannequin) is carved from styrofoam to the exact shape of the original fish. The skin is then placed around this and left to dry with regular checks made to correct any oil seepage, a particular problem with salmon. When completely dry the skin has to be painted as by this time it will have lost all its colour. This is the really skilful part and sorts out the men from the boys
Dulux, in this instance, is not the right medium!) Several washes of colour are applied to make the fish look as realistic as possible. The casing is a matter of personal choice and although the fish may just be mounted on a wooden board it is not generally recommended. A traditional setting in a bow fronted glass case complete with gilt lettering is still the best method and will become an antique of the future, not to mention the pleasure gained of having a permanent record of the big one that didn't get away!

Further information on any aspect of taxidermy available from:

David McKinley,
Heads n' Tails, Wiveliscombe, Somerset.
01984 623097.