Animal Art

Art & Photography August 2nd, 2011

A little over 20 years ago, my friend Jessica Brent and I had a big party in the Mississippi Delta, which was meant to give the many people invited to the big wedding I had cancelled six months earlier something to do. We sent out invitations inviting people to the Lost Annual Hoodoo Mamas Ball (don’t ask me what that was about) and held it in an antebellum house called Mount Holly that had once belonged to the family of the Civil War historian Shelby Foote. The rooms were so cavernous they would swallow normal décor, and anyway a party with a name like that needed something besides your typical floral arrangements for decoration.
I was living in New York at the time, but Jessica had returned from L.A. to our hometown and was thus surrounded by a whole lot of hunters along with their many trophies. We determined that it would be brilliant to decorate the whole place with taxidermy. And it was. Wild geese flew suspended from fishing lure hanging from the ceiling; a handsome buck greeted guests at the front door. There were raccoons and bobcats adorning the mantles, a hornet’s nest hung above the dining table, an enormous loggerhead turtle with lilies in its mouth acted as a coffee table in the library, where we also placed a chair made entirely of the hide and horns of an elk that had been shot by Jessica’s father Howard. Â Among my favorite pieces was a beaver with gigantic yellow teeth chewing on a stick.
We augmented the stuffed animals with lots of moss and Johnson grass, and the Cajun zydeco musician Terrence Simien brought his band (complete with a midget washboard player who did somersaults across the stage), and it was definitely one of our more successful—and actually very beautiful—parties. The next day when we came back to dismantle the décor, we discovered that the deer’s leg had been chewed on by some random critter, but everything was in pretty good repair. We filled up Howard’s huge SUV—complete with the beaver’s face pressed up against the back window—and tied the deer on top, and the whole way back into town, drivers honked incredulously and dogs barked and gave chase. Our last stop was the Elk’s Club, to which Howard had donated his “throne.”
 Looking at the photos now, I am struck by how incredibly chic the whole thing was, just as I am always bowled over when I walk into my favorite shop in the all the world, the great taxidermist Deyrolle in Paris (see Fetch this week). Â The PETA folks fond of putting pies in Anna Wintour’s face to protest Vogue’s support of fur will likely not agree, but I have always found the company of stuffed animals oddly comforting. I love those Victorian dioramas filled with birds and butterflies, insects and shells. Another of my favorite shops is Animal Art in New Orleans, where a huge diorama featuring a stuffed fox holding a partridge in its mouth once held sway. I adored the store’s late owner, Charles Murphy, and had a perfect spot for my fox, but by the time (after years of paying him visits) I had collected enough money to buy him, he was gone. Charles’s wife had been appalled by the whole tableau, so he shipped it off to his nephew in Mississippi. I was heartbroken, so Charles presented me with a gift, a mounted boar’s head that was also deemed too offensive to remain in the store.

He is a tad mangy, but I was thrilled to have him and he now holds a place of honor above the mantel in my office, just above a huge turn-of-the-century photograph of the waves hitting Columbo, Sri Lanka that I bought on the Pimlico Road. There are also at least a half dozen bird prints, a wood block of a possum, a “basket” made of the skin of an armadillo, mounted and framed “Julia” butterfly specimens, a watercolor of an owl that once belonged to Bill Blass, the seed pod of a palm tree hand-painted by my friend Bill Dunlap, and an oil portrait of my late and very noble cat Sam by John Alexander. In bored moments, I like to imagine that I have the comparatively glamorous existence of a British traveler/naturalist from another era. I am also still holding out for a fox. There was a handsome—and rather startling—stuffed one curled up on a chair when I was last in Deyrolle a couple of weeks ago, but given the hunting habits of my very live beagle Henry, I am thinking I definitely need to get one that is safely under glass. As I type, Henry is currently snoozing on the day bed in front of me and I am as thrilled to have his living, breathing presence with me while I work as I am to have his stuffed and painted and drawn counterparts.

About Julia Reed

Julia Reed is a columnist at Garden & Gun magazine and a contributing editor at Elle Décor. She also contributes to The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, and The New York Times, and makes frequent appearances on MSNBC. She is the author of five books, including But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria, Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry and One Man’s Folly, The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood.

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