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A Man Who Knows How to Stuff an Elephant
John Lovesey
October 26, 1959
Rowland Ward Ltd., taxidermists of London and Nairobi, are steeped in a tradition that balks at no challenge
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October 26, 1959

A Man Who Knows How To Stuff An Elephant

Rowland Ward Ltd., taxidermists of London and Nairobi, are steeped in a tradition that balks at no challenge

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But taxidermy is only a part of Rowland Ward's total business, which is 25 times as big as it was in 1947. It has various departments in its Grosvenor Street showrooms selling books and other objects relating to wildlife, big-game hunting and field sports. A postwar innovation has been a paintings and prints department. Another is an offshoot company, with two shops similar to the Grosvenor Street one, established in Nairobi. There Rowland Ward makes immediate contact with potential customers going on safari from all over the world. And, as in the past, Rowland Ward answers the questions that are constantly referred to them.

Such success is the outcome of a reputation unequaled in England, a superb flair for unobtrusive salesmanship and the infinite care with which the British firm handles everything it touches. It would have warmed the heart of the English genius who was primarily responsible for the firm's worldwide renown. He was Rowland Ward, recalled by one of the firm's craftsmen as "rather a posh man." Rowland Ward's father, Henry, an intimate friend of the celebrated American naturalist, John James Audubon, founded a taxidermy business at the beginning of the last century. Young Rowland, whose original ambition was to become a sculptor, went to work for him at the age of 14. This was a logical move, for as a boy Rowland had exhibited an intense interest in animal life and often removed the skins of small mammals to make piece molds and casts. In this way he acquired a thorough knowledge of animal structure.

After 10 years with his father, Rowland won an extensive commission on his own account from an American. With the small capital he gained, he left his father and started his own business.

Ward made up his mind to study nature and adapt it to taxidermy. At the beginning he often worked far into the night, eventually dropping asleep on his workroom floor out of sheer exhaustion. When he was modeling an animal in a particular pose he would make frequent visits to the zoo before he obtained exactly what he wanted. Then from a drawing or a smal wax model a life-size copy was reproduced in his workroom. Later he designed a "special naturalist's" camera which saved many of his zoo-going trips. He discovered and developed the use of wood wool as a foundation for his models. However, his greatest contribution to his firm was the use of wood and metal skeletons, over which was placed the modeling to represent the muscles and flesh. Rowland Ward likened his methods to those of a painter who paints his figure in the nude and then clothes it. In that way, said Ward, he achieved life, expression and action in his work.

Ward branched out in 1872 into another area, "Wardian Furniture," a style much admired in its day and still prized in certain gaming sets. He made lamps, the supports of which were composed of birds or quadrupeds. Thick elephant or rhinoceros hides were turned into a cloudy, amberlike material suitable for table tops. Elephant feet were made into liqueur stands, and a hall porter's chair was constructed from a complete elephant's skin. Ward also designed brooches, necklaces and earrings out of such things as tiger claws, elephant hair and fine metals. He made crocodile umbrella stands and silver-mounted table knives with lobster-shell handles. Today the firm produces similar articles, and currently sells rhinoceros-hide table tops and such items as cigarette lighters mounted on hoofs, cocktail trays made from elephant feet and biscuit barrels set in rhinoceros feet.

Ward also modeled, apart from the usual run of mounted heads and full sized animals, exhibition groups (often of beasts in fierce combat) in surroundings imitating their natural habitat. He mounted many defunct pets, some famous race horses of his time, a boxing kangaroo, a special pet dog of Queen Victoria and some boots worn by the pugilist Jem Smith. He originated at least one natural history joke for a customer, and so successfully was this done that for years after Ward heard of the remarkable "pig antelope" which adorned the wall of a big country mansion. But his most extraordinary commission was the mounting of the mustache and imperial of an army officer, which were purchased (and cut off) by a peer for a £5 note.

An avid collector of scientific and rare specimens, Ward acquired dodos, the largest elephant tusks in the world, record horns and animals of every kind and size, from a white tiger to a white hedgehog. He made numerous valuable presentations to the British and other natural history museums. He was a prolific publisher, another branch of the business commenced by Ward and continued by the present organization. His best known book is probably the Records of Big Game, which has been kept up to date by the company in successive editions.

When Rowland Ward died in 1911, an autocratic businessman named J. B. Burlace acquired the business. He sold out in 1937 to two men, Martin Stevens, who was foremost among the younger game enthusiasts at that time, and Gerald Best, the present managing director. The new team hardly had time to dust the cobwebs away before World War II came. The company's premises were blitzed, and the business only barely continued to exist until peace came. Stevens was killed in combat and his share of the business was bought by his friend Best.

Gerald Best is an old Etonian and a superb and charming blend of English gentlemanliness and modernity. In 1939 he also went to war, riding off on his horse to join his cavalry regiment, carrying, so Best relates, nothing much more dangerous than a sword. He rose to the rank of colonel, and during the whole of the war came back to his homeland for only eight months. But, an ardent sportsman (who has shot in Africa, India and Europe), Best dismisses his war record casually. He laughingly claims he had some good duck and partridge shooting in the Middle East and was trout fishing in Normandy on D-day-plus-7 until he realized that the presence of some previously unsuspected German mines was making his angling foolhardy. In between fighting Best contemplated what he would do with Rowland Ward. In dusty deserts and atop mountains he found time enough, like all soldiers, to plan a peacetime campaign. He even considered closing up the business for good. But he chose to expand it, basing his choice on the potentialities of a firm with an established reputation.

Today, at 48, Owner Best is a tall, distinguished-looking, almost white-haired man. And since he has thrown himself like a fury into the organization and traveled extensively in search of new trade, the firm he heads has recaptured all of the glory it knew when its namesake long ago ran the business which, in an inspired moment, he himself described as "unique, artistic and original."

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