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 dingy dead-end street called Leighton Place in the northern section of the city. 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 in nearly half a century. 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. 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 had been shot less than a year ago in the Belgian Congo for the Belgian government, which wanted to exhibit it. When the skin was taken off, it weighed over 1,000 pounds and had to be carried by 60 husky natives. After curing, it was flown to London Airport, where Her Majesty's customs men held up the skin for a month.
When the skin arrived at Rowland Ward's factory, rolled like a piece of linoleum, it was a hardened, dry mass, in some places a good two inches thick. To make it suitable to work with, it was soaked for days in a solution consisting of water and carbolic acid. After soaking, the underside, which had been previously reduced in thickness in Africa by about half, was tediously pared down to a quarter inch with drawknives. And at this stage no outsider could have imagined the truly lifelike model that would eventually emerge.
The wooden frame 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 itself was retained and incorporated in the frame. 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."
Finally, the hide, which had meanwhile been kept immersed in water, 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. The color of the eyes was checked against real specimens kept in pickle at the London zoo.
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 color 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.
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 (the word "stuffed" is anathema to modern taxidermists) anything from a tiger or a lion to the smallest antelope in the world, the dik-dik. More than two-thirds of its customers are Americans.
Serious big-game hunters, such as film star Stewart Granger, send their trophies from every part of the globe. Museums from Scandinavia to Portugal to Australia have animals set up by them. Old heads, taken in the past, are also sent to be renovated.
Rowland Ward's factory storeroom is nearly overflowing with work. There is a production-line system, and one department, run almost entirely by a female staff, models and finishes all the smaller heads. Rowland Ward's bird modeler is described by a fellow craftsman as a "Van Dyck" in his field. Each craftsman has to rely on his own acquired knowledge of muscular position, sense of form, balance and color. Today 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. The company still operates, however, in the tradition of many another English firm—it takes its time meeting its business obligations.