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Setting Up An Elephant

A Man Who Knows How To Stuff An Elephant

Gerald Best (with hat) bringing out the Brussels elephant from the Leighton Place workshop. (1957)
The streets of London are filled with many strange sights, but one of the strangest of all occurred one morning at the end of a dead-end street called Leighton Place in the northern section of London. There, from an oversize doorway of a rambling old building, emerged a huge bull elephant, standing on a wooden platform and towering over 10 workmen rolling it onto the street. As the startled bystanders quickly realized, the elephant was only a stuffed animal. But it was a spectacular example of the handiwork of one of the most unusual practitioners of taxidermy in the world, a 100-year-old firm called Rowland Ward Ltd. Even for them it was a rare job, the first stuffed elephant they had completed since 1908. And, since they are one of the very few firms in the world equipped to take on such a gargantuan task, it was one of several stuffed elephants known to have been completed by anyone in the world for decades.
Out on Leighton Place, where it had been moved for crating and shipping, the elephant looked almost roguishly real. The job has taken 12 men six months, and it has not only called for the best possible use of craftsmen's knowledge and skill, but for a great deal of ingenuity. This remarkable verisimilitude was a tribute to the craftsmanship of Rowland Ward and its ability to take on any kind of taxidermy job, no matter how great the demands. The elephant it had received belonged to the species knochenhaueri Loxodonta africana; the African Bush Elephant, the world's largest land animal, is characterized by its large ears and prominent tusks. The animal was found on the Bushimaie River in South Kasai of the Belgian Congo and had been shot for the Belgian government, which wanted to exhibit it at the Brussels 1958 World Exposition.
Sixty men were needed to lift the half-ton skin from the Congo.
When the skin was taken off, it was laid out on a bed of leaves and a mixture of alum and salt was rubbed into it; it weighed over 600 kilos and had to be carried by 60 natives to the main camp. During the night it was protected by 40 armed game-department employees from villagers trying to seize the meat. The skinning was completed in the remarkably short time of 13 hours. For a week preparation continued and the skin was shaved to a fine, even surface up to half its original thickness. Finally, it was spread out on a bamboo drying-board and well sheltered to protect it from the sun. Several times a day the skin was moved and covered at night to control swings in temperature and humidity. Four weeks after its arrival at the camp, it weighed 500 kilos and was ready to be rolled up into a bundle for shipment to London.
The modelling or preparing of a specimen of this size involves a number of entirely different processes, not all carried out by the same workmen, and it is essential that each is successfully completed before the next is started. When the skin arrived at Rowland Ward's factory, rolled like a piece of linoleum, it was a hardened, dry mass, in some places two inches thick. The first stage is to "relax" the skin to make it pliable to work with. It was soaked for 20 days in a solution consisting of water and carbolic acid. After soaking, the next thing was to reduced the skins thickness and was tediously pared down to a quarter inch with double-handed drawknives. And at this stage no outsider could have imagined the truly lifelike model that would eventually emerge.
Paring down the skin; constructing the skeleton.
After it had been successfully pared down, the skin had to be laid out on the workroom floor in its natural position - not an easy task in view of its bulk- in order to ascertain its size in relation to the measurements taken in the field, and so to calculate its dimensions when set up.
Next a centre board and leg boards were prepared and slung into position. These were to the exact dimensions and on the attitude in which the specimen was ultimately to be displayed. Again the greatest possible care and attention to detail was needed, and many bolts and steel rods had to be made specially.
The wooden skeleton around which the elephant was built was a mass of short lengths of timber. In order to support the weight of the tusks, the skull was partially cut away and incorporated in the frame with its own wooden centre board to provide sufficient strength to attach it to the body structure, and the tusks were bolted into their natural sockets. Over and around the whole structure went the modeling, layers and layers of wood wool, bound by twine and subjected constantly to measurement. The half-done structure looked, as one wit put it, "like a shaggy elephant story."
During all this "construction" work the skin had to remain immersed in its tank in order to keep it supple. Twice during the "binding-up", however, it was taken out and tried over the model. The lowering of the heavy, wet skin over the completed model was complicated, as all the folds in the skin and the taut pertains had to be correctly positioned. Finally, the hide was placed over the framework, with the aid of a tackle operated through an opening in the ceiling. At the base of the model the floor had to be dug away to a depth of two feet to give sufficient vertical height for the elephant. Once in position a second modeling process took place, during which the skin had to be constantly sprayed so that it remained pliable enough for the modelers to work with. Like so much formless rubber, it was pulled and pushed and tied into the correct folds and taut portions until the complete lot could dry and hold the desired shape by itself.
The elephant had to be sewn up along the underside of the belly, the head and trunk and inside the legs. Measurements and notes on the eye were taken in the field, the colour was checked against scientific specimens at the London Zoo and a pair of glass eyes were specially prepared, painted and "baked" by one of the women taxidermists.
Once the modelers had completed their work, the elephant had to be dried. Not so fast that the seams or even the skin itself ripped open but fast enough to allow the finishers to hide the skin's imperfections and colour the body. The drying process took 10 weeks and the complete task from start to finish engaged for six months 10 men and one woman, who painted the eyes. The model weighed 1½ tons and measured 15 feet from the tips of its formidable tusks to its tail, and stood 10 feet at the shoulder.
Elephant casing, London. (1957)
A number of people who had seen the elephant in the workrooms asked how it is to be moved out and how it will reach Brussels. The answer is simpler than it looks. The floor level had been lowered to allow the beast to pass under the girders and through the door, and eventually it was be put in a box.
Elephant arriving at the Expo site, Brussel. (1957)
But elephants, despite their size, are only a very small part of Rowland Ward's taxidermy business. In a year it handles from 4,000 to 5,000 individual huntsmen's trophies, mounting anything from a tiger or a lion to the smallest antelope in the world, the dik-dik. Museums from Scandinavia to Portugal to Australia have animals set up by them. Rowland Ward's taxidermists have brought their work, particularly in the finishing, where more modern ingredients are used in the coloring, to a fine peak that equals anything before attained by the firm.
  • 'A Man Who Knows How to Stuff an Elephant' - by John Lovesey, Sports Illustrator - October 26, 1959
  • Excerpt with permission from “SETTING UP AN ELEPHANT” - by Gerald Best, Nov. 1957, The Field. by the editor J.Young, The Field, UK.