Under the skin of the taxidermist’s penchants.

Polly Morgan is a south-east London-based artist known for her taxidermy sculptures. By turns eerie, exquisite and macabre, her thought-provoking and compellingly beautiful work skyrocketed her to stardom in her twenties when images of, for example, quail chicks emerging from scaffold-board coffins suddenly seemed ubiquitous in the pages of glossy magazines everywhere. And, just like that, taxidermy was delivered from its Victorian doldrums and made relevant once more.

The artworld is no stranger to repurposing animal carcasses – you need only think of Damian Hirst’s cows and sharks in formaldehyde – but Morgan’s style remains unlike any other. As The Times art critic, Waldemar Janusczcek, wrote of her 2020 exhibition, How To Behave At Home, ‘The art reminds you of no one else. Hirst was macho, Morgan isn’t. The masculine territory of taxidermy has been commandeered by feminine intricacies and complex moods. Emotionally, in the atmospheres she creates, she’s nimble and light to the touch. Her art may consist largely of dead animals, but there’s no sense of death about it…. In the end, her art says something genuinely insightful about the modern world. She turns snakes into mirrors and holds them up to us. To do this with taxidermy is brave and special.’

Morgan lives in a converted pub in south-east London with her partner, fellow artist Mat Collishaw, and their children. Despite never having had any formal artistic training, she has won a covetable clutch of accolades; she was the 2021 winner of the Royal Society of Sculptors First Plinth public art award, for example, while in 2016, Melvyn Bragg selected her to design and create thirteen awards for the winners of the Sky Southbank Arts Awards.

Her work plays with what is on the surface, those veneers we create, designed to protect and perhaps hide an essential truth; to cover what may be deemed as less desirable or socially acceptable. As such, her most recent work deals in particular with snake skins – so often used as camouflage or to pose as more deadly species in the natural world – and their mirror to our own relationship with social media and the compulsion we feel to misdirect and control perceptions of our lives.

Here she shares which house she hopes to one day use as a blueprint for her own future home; the TV series she’s agitating for everyone she knows to watch; and whose Instagram account provides a welcome antidote to her biggest social media bugbear: inspirational quotes.

Favourite place in all the world?

Lypiatt in the summer. We rent a cottage from friends near Stroud – the valleys, local pub and farmers market make me feel like I'm in France when the sun's out. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing my children running wild in nature, liberated finally from me screeching at them to watch out for cars.

Dream holiday?

I’m excited about taking my little boys on Safari one day. I once went with my boyfriend who was less than enthusiastic. Two small boys with boundless enthusiasm for animals will make up for that in spades.

Most coveted item right now?

Time to devote to my work.

Proudest professional moment to date?

Managing to get my exhibition, How to Behave at Home, on last October in between lockdowns. After months trying to work with the kids at home, the great reviews it received made the struggle worthwhile and put my work niggles at ease for a while.

Your dream future project?

I’d love to scale up my polystyrene sculptures with snakes spilling from the cavities and display one outdoors in a city square or similar.

Who has been your most inspiring mentor, professionally or personally?

Probably my boyfriend, Mat Collishaw. He’s non-invasive and rarely interferes in my work but gently steers me towards artists he thinks I’ll like and encourages patience when I’m hurtling ahead and messing things up.

Where would you live if you could live anywhere?

If I could transport any of the homes on The Modern House website to the Stroud area I’d be happy.

What book is on your nightstand/ kindle right now?

Deceit and Self Deception by Robert Trivers. I'm interested in veneers literal and metaphorical, and my work plays with the idea of what's real and what is fake. It fascinates me to watch people on social media, curating their online lives to encourage a particular perception of themselves to flourish. It's a natural animal behaviour when you compare it to the way snakes have evolved to mimic more venomous breeds or to camouflage themselves to evade predators. 

Best film you’ve seen recently?

I don’t watch many films but I thought The Father was a clever and harrowing study in dementia and has remained in my thoughts.

Best binge-watched TV show?

The White Lotus was perfect in every way. I’m recommending it to everyone. It punctures everyone in the culture wars, showing each side up to be as self-interested as the other in the wittiest of ways. I always think humour needs to be used when tackling serious subjects and this does it so well. 

Top podcast of the moment?

I dip into Talk Art now and then when I’m working. I’ve always found there’s been a dearth of in-depth interviews on individual artists and this is helping to repair that. The episode on Oliver Helmsley is a recent favourite.

Your hero?

I’m always impressed by Sarah Lucas. Her aesthetic is faultless; everything she does looks effortless and she appears to be unmoved by trends. A true original.

Favourite dish to cook?

I eat a lot of fish and seafood. Ceviche and Asian-style sea bass with a crunchy papaya salad are regulars.

Favourite café/ restaurant?

J Sheekey, every time. I feel like I'm in The Orient Express in the 1930s as soon as I step inside. 

Most useful thing on your desk?

A scalpel.

Favourite building?

Noyes’ house in Connecticut. I'd like to build my own house one day and often refer back to this as the model. 

Favourite Instagrammer?

I'm always happy to come across Bedwyr Williams' posts on Instagram. He is brutally critical of us all in the funniest of ways and the perfect antidote to all the inanity and – my particular bugbear – inspirational quotes found on Instagram. 

Your screensaver?

A photo I took of a snake being skinned by me whilst wearing acrylic nails painted to look like chipfoam. 

By Nancy Alsop
January 2021

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Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.