The Journal | #Fortnums

Horton taxidermy


We speak to British taxidermist Harriet Horton ahead of the most extraordinary event of the season, Horton X Boxer: Prawns.

While Fortnum’s has welcomed many an unusual guest into its fold over the years, not many have had ten legs, antennae, shells, and no backbone (or if they do, it must all cleverly hidden underneath their clothes). On 21st November, however, a number of fantastic beasts will descend upon The Wine Bar of our Piccadilly store, thanks to the work of artist Harriet Horton.

Harriet – currently in residence at Sarabande, the design studio legacy of Lee Alexander McQueen – is an ethical taxidermist who primarily focuses on marine animals, particularly the prawn. Her work arrives to Fortnum’s as part of a unique collaboration with chef du jour Jackson Boxer, in which Harriet will demonstrate the process behind her creations to the 40 guests in attendance (and here's how you can be one of them). Following this, Jackson will incorporate the discarded fish into a show-stopping seafood menu.

How did you first become interested in taxidermy?

I originally studied Philosophy, and started looking to sculpture, and then I began looking into taxidermy as a medium. It was outdated, and a lot of it was trophy mounts from the Victorian era in glass cases. So just like anything, I had to study it. And then I wanted to ask how I could change it, and make it better. At the time, taxidermy was becoming quite popular – the ethics of it, more so. So first, I wanted to make sure everything I sourced had died naturally. Then there was the aesthetics of it, and changing the mood of it. I wanted to make the mundane, theatrical, which I did by choosing the more common species and applying them with various neon colours. I’m not so interested in parrots or the more typically beautiful birds – the work is already done for you.

Why were you interested in challenging traditional perceptions of it?

I really liked taxidermy, but I didn’t like the history of it. I collected it for a while, but something felt a bit off. Initially, I wrote a list of reasons I didn’t like it, and then I tried to work on each point – to make a piece of artwork that I liked. It’s history has mostly been very traditional, without any change and I thought it could be done better.

Why did you choose to work with crustaceans?

In taxidermy, commercially [marine animals] are pointless. If you’re talking about marine animals, [commissions] would be along the lines of: ‘Here’s a fish I’ve caught, will you preserve it for me?’ But there’s no demand for prawns, as people don’t catch them. It’s a different field. While it was about doing something that there’s no demand for, it’s been the most popular specimen I’ve worked on. I like to take something that you wouldn’t assume existed, because taxidermy and prawns sounds absurd in itself anyway! But I wanted to set myself a new challenge. I like taking small things and giving them a stage – prawns, often you only see them small and de-shelled. Once I’ve assembled them with their full exoskeleton and sharpened, samurai-like metal antennas they become very powerful-looking sculptures.

Taxidermy prawn in red
Harriet Horton portrait
Harriet prawn green

What was the process of working with them like?

It was a new experience because I’ve never done exoskeletons before. I de-assemble the prawn, and looked at every part of it, which is a very lengthy process: all the back legs (pleopods) are individually separated, the meat removed and then injected with a paint and silicone mix. I keep as much of the actual prawn as possible, including the amazing armoured shells they’ve got, which naturally mottle during the process which gives an incredible finish. An amazing discovery was recently made by Angelina Arora, a 15 year old girl from India, that the shells (a mix of sugar, protein and calcium) can be used as a biodegradable plastic substitute!

How does the practice change, when you are treating is as art? Are you treating them as characters?

No, I don’t ever see them as characters. It’s all about the aesthetics and structure because they’re mostly silhouetted, as the light will do that. I just want them to look powerful from a distance, then when you go in closer, you can see all the detail – they’re quite fascinating. But I think they’re really beautiful, and I love it when people say to me, ‘I don’t really like taxidermy, but I like your work.’ Then I feel like I’ve achieved what I initially set out to. I do really think that the prawn encapsulates the mission in my work.

How did the collaboration with Jackson come about?

While everything is ethical in my work with animals who have died naturally, obviously the prawns haven’t. So I wanted to do this full circle story where we actually eat the meat from the prawn, and because you can dismantle them easily in the kitchen, it’s actually very easy for me to do. Jackson is incredible, and I really admire his work and his cuisine. I reached out to him through the Sarabande Foundation, and he was on board straight away. He’s going to cook and I’m going to stuff the seafood in situ, so it’s quite mad. But it’s just a perfect example of how you can still do things and keep it as sustainable as possible.

It’s partly a visual comment on sustainability and food waste – are those topics you’re interested in?

Zero waste yes, sustainability, it’s a tricky one. I think that word gets thrown about quite a lot, and so it doesn’t have as much meaning. I think in the current climate, you have to be careful with what you have, and that’s something that I’m passionate about.

Can you give us a bit of an idea of what to expect in The Wine Bar?

I’m going to incorporate a few different animals into it. There’s going to be a colourful, weird deep sea vibe to it – the colours are pinks, oranges, and reds. There’ll be a lot of neon, so a hit to the senses. I’m excited about doing it. I’m going to fill it with all of my work. Fortnum’s was a perfect match, and the first place we thought of doing a collaboration. It has such a long history to it, and so does taxidermy, and it’s just a very theatrical place. When you think about the dinners they do and the food they sell, Fortnum’s is very elaborate, which is exactly what we wanted to do with our dinner. It just made perfect sense to do it at Fortnum’s, so I’m over the moon.

What has your experience of Sarabande been like?

Sarabande has been a year-long residence which I started last October. It was set up by Lee Alexander McQueen, and it’s for people who want to do something, but need help in some way. Trino [Verkade, Sarabande CEO, and one of McQueen’s first employees) has many years of experience, and can take on any project. Even for an idea like this which was initially very small, they just nurture you in the right way and move you in the direction you want to go in. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They are an incredible creative force.

What is it about McQueen’s work that you find inspiring?

His entire work was to make something incredibly dark incredibly beautiful, and that’s something that really resonates with me, especially with my work.

Feeling prawny?