Obituary: Sculptor and taxidermist who collaborated with Damien Hurst dies aged 61

Pictures for feature on taxidermist and artist Emily Mayer at her studio in Kenninghall.Photo: Ang

Taxidermist and artist Emily Mayer at her studio - Credit: Angela Sharpe

Attempting to stuff a deceased wild baby rabbit on the family kitchen table is not the most likely of activities for an 11-year-old. 

But for taxidermist-turned-sculptor Emily Mayer, that is exactly what the young artist did and continued to do until her death from cancer at the age of 61. 

As long as she adhered to her mother’s warning - “please, put some newspaper down first darling" - she would pass away the hours by skinning birds before tidying the evidence ahead of suppertime. 

It was a rare and unusual acceptance by her parents – Tommy, a Mauritanian, and German-born Irmelin – that gave birth to a unique and rewarding career. 

Taxidermist and Sculptor Emily Mayer in one of her workshops, Norfolk.<PHOTO: Natasha Lyster> 15/

Taxidermist and sculptor Emily Mayer in one of her workshops in Norfolk - Credit: Natasha Lyster

Born in the capital on November 15, 1960, Ms Mayer grew up and attended school in suburban London. The youngest of three, she was described as being “obsessed” with animals.  

Her husband, the painter John Loker, recalled a story from her childhood when she witnessed a dog being hit by a car and dying outside its home. Then aged 15, she missed school that day opting to sit with the dog until its owners arrived home so it was “not alone”. 

"Willing to Please" by Emily Mayer which is being displayed at the King of Hearts in Norwich as part

"Willing to Please" by Emily Mayer - Credit: King of Hearts

Mr Loker said: “It was more than just a love of animals. It was a fascination really. 

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“In fact, a lot of people said they were frightened of her as she could be quite fierce and was sharp as a button, but she was incredibly kind – doing things such as privately giving her tenants rent holidays when they could not afford to pay her. 

“She did not suffer fools but she did have a good heart and a good humour.” 

Pictures for feature on taxidermist and artist Emily Mayer at her studio in Kenninghall. Pictured wo

Taxidermist and artist Emily Mayer at her studio - Credit: Angela Sharpe

She left home aged 17 and moved first to Yorkshire and then America to qualify as a taxidermist, a career that eventually brought her to Dickleburgh, near Diss in south Norfolk. 

"She made a living as a taxidermist there,” Mr Loker added. “But during her mid-20s, she decided it was not enough. She needed more creativity. 

"Taking four years out, she obtained a first-class honours degree in fine art sculpture from the Norwich School of Art and Design, where she blossomed as an artist.” 

Pictures for feature on taxidermist and artist Emily Mayer at her studio in Kenninghall.Photo: Ang

Taxidermist and artist Emily Mayer at her studio - Credit: Angela Sharpe

It was the couple’s mutual love of art and creativity that eventually brought them together when Mr Loker opened his studio doors to the public 30 years ago and Ms Mayer visited. 

The father-of-three, 22-years her senior, married Ms Mayer on September 12, 1997, after agreeing to her proposal when she joked that she would not marry a man over 60. 

Following a self-confessed “rough patch” after seven years of marriage, the couple decided that separating “would be madness” and embarked on something of an unusual living arrangement. 

Pictures for feature on taxidermist and artist Emily Mayer at her studio in Kenninghall. Emily pictu

Emily Mayer pictured with her two dogs (alive on her lap) and Bertha 'asleep' (a deceased dog) on the floor - Credit: Angela Sharpe

In an L-shaped building with plenty of studio space dividing them – laid out over 6,000sqft of land – the couple had separate little homes at each end of the former workhouse hospital building. 

Built in 1906, it already had a collection of small rooms when the couple bought it in 1993 and converted it from a near-derelict grain store. 

Mr Loker said: “We are both fiercely independent and we liked living independently. We might have lived 120ft apart, but for us, it worked wonderfully.”  

As well as becoming the president of the Guild of Taxidermists in 2001 to 2004, she developed a revolutionary taxidermy technique called erosion moulding and collaborated on a number of works by English artist Damien Hirst, including the severed cow’s heads for his famous sculpture A Thousand Years. 

Ms Mayer’s brand of taxidermy was far removed from the Victorian creations of exotic birds crammed in glass domes and caricatures of foxes and squirrels in ridiculous action poses.  

Some of her most renowned pieces include the startling creation of a handbag made from a complete piglet, moulded from the animal found dead by the road, as well as a rat rolling a jar of dog’s testicles and a fox stuffed into a suitcase.  

Pictures for feature on taxidermist and artist Emily Mayer at her studio in Kenninghall. A mouse wit

Emily Mayer's work of a mouse with a jar of dogs testicles - Credit: Angela Sharpe

Ms Mayer was diagnosed with breast cancer before undergoing a mastectomy in 2020. Cancer spread into her liver and lungs and she died on April 1 in her studio, surrounded by her work.  

A funeral took place on April 22 and donations in her memory have been raised for PACT Animal Sanctuary via pactsanctuary.org and Star Throwers Cancer Support Services via starthrowers.org.uk. 

Contemporary and Country will be showcasing a sculpture by Ms Mayer in its exhibition River's Edge in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, between June 7 and 19.