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.
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."