London

Rowland Ward Ltd.

A Man WHo Knows How To
Stuff An Elephant

Gerald Best

Gerald Best (with hat) bringing out the elephant from the Leighton Place workshop. With Roy Hale (left, man with glasses), Vic Reed (middle, white coat), Mr. Taylor (front, brown coat), Eric Hare (right, with cap). (1957)

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 dead-end street called Leighton Place in the northern section of London. 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 since 1908.

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.

Construction elephant box

Construction of the large box around the elephant before dispatching it to Brussels. (1957)

The elephant it had received belonged to the species knochenhaueri Loxodonta africana; the African Bush Elephant, the world's largest land animal, is characterized by its large ears and prominent tusks. The animal was found on the Bushimaie River in South Kasai of the Belgian Congo and had been shot for the Belgian government, which wanted to exhibit it at the Brussels 1958 World Exposition.

When the skin was taken off, it was laid out on a bed of leaves and a mixture of alum and salt was rubbed into it; it weighed over 600 kilos and had to be carried by 60 natives to the main camp. During the night it was protected by 40 armed game-department employees from villagers trying to seize the meat. The skinning was completed in the remarkably short time of 13 hours. For a week preparation continued and the skin was shaved to a fine, even surface up to half its original thickness. Finally, it was spread out on a bamboo drying-board and well sheltered to protect it from the sun. Several times a day the skin was moved and covered at night to control swings in temperature and humidity. Four weeks after its arrival at the camp, it weighed 500 kilos and was ready to be rolled up into a bundle for shipment to London.

Mission Zoologique MRCA

Mission Zoologique Taxidermique du Musée Royal Du Congo Belge 1956, Max Poll.

When the skin arrived at Rowland Ward's factory, rolled like a piece of linoleum, it was a hardened, dry mass, in some places two inches thick. The first stage is to "relax" the skin to make it pliable to work with. It was soaked for 20 days in a solution consisting of water and carbolic acid. After soaking, the next thing was to reduced the skins thickness and was tediously pared down to a quarter inch with double-handed drawknives. And at this stage no outsider could have imagined the truly lifelike model that would eventually emerge.

The wooden skeleton 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 was partially cut away 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".

Elephant skeleton wrapped in wood wool

The skeleton wrapped in wood wool. (film still 1957)

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. Measurements and notes on the eye were taken in the field, the colour was checked against scientific specimens at the London Zoo and a pair of glass eyes were specially prepared, painted and "baked" by one of the women taxidermists.

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 colour 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 weight 1 ½ tons and measured 15 feet from the tips of its formidable tusks to its tail, and stood 10 feet at the shoulder.

Rowland Ward

Dik-Dik Publicity still Rowland Ward

A tiny dik-dik stands between the massive legs of the giant of the animal kingdom, an elephant. There's no danger, since both are stuffed, and stand outside the taxidermy shop of Rowland Ward in London. (Publicity Photo 1957)

But elephants, despite their size, are only a very small part of Rowland Ward's taxidermy business. In a year it handled from 4,000 to 5,000 individual huntsmen's trophies, mounting anything from a tiger or a lion to the smallest antelope in the world, the dik-dik. Museums from Scandinavia to Portugal to Australia have animals set up by them. 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.

James Rowland Ward the English genius who was primarily responsible for the firm's worldwide renown, was born in London in 1847. Although details of his early years are sketchy, it is clear that from a tender age he was extraordinarily interested in all aspects of natural history. Rowland, along with his brother, had been trained by his father Henry, who had at one time been employed by John Audubon, a famous American naturalist. After working for his father for some years, Rowland started his own taxidermy business and established the "The Jungle", Piccadilly London, where most of his patron purchased items for both public and private taxidermy collections.

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. Ward branched out in 1872 into another area, "Wardian Furniture," a style much admired in its day.

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. 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 present organizations. His best known book is probably the Records of Big Game, which has been kept up to date by the company in successive editions.

The Sportsman's British Bird Book - 1908

Elephant Hunting - The Colonial Indian Exhibition, Lodon, 1886

When Rowland Ward died

When Rowland Ward died in 1912, an autocratic businessman named John 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 A. Best. 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, who chose to expand it, basing his choice on the potentialities of a firm with an established reputation which, he ran successfully for over twenty years. Best had thrown himself like a fury into the organization and traveled extensively in search of new trade, the firm had recaptured all of the glory it knew when its namesake long ago ran the business. When Gerald Best died in 1969 the business was divided into two different trading sections and left to his sons. The taxidermy workshop closed its doors in 1977, when so much of this art form went out of fashion.

Source – Sports Illustrator – October 26, 1959
A Man Who Knows How to Stuff an Elephant, by John Lovesey

Excerpt with permission from
SETTING UP AN ELEPHANT, by Gerald Best, Nov. 1957, The Field
by the editor J. Young, The Field, UK

Lost Elephant Film

Rowland Ward Ltd. 1957

Setting Up An Elephant

In 1957, Ward's made a film of the process of mounting the museum elephant. Filmed at the Rowland Ward Ltd. workshop, this film is an interesting historical record of this rather unique and challenging event.

A copy of the film, a Kodachrome – 16mm – 45 minute documentary, was supplied with the Tervuren elephant. Gerald Best, managing director of Rowland Ward Ltd., presented his documentary at the Belgian Congo Fauna Pavilion of the Brussels Expo'58. Further arrangements were made to screen the film in Switzerland, France, London and four places in the United States. Two screening events are known for the USA : Mr. Best showed his film at The Adventurers Club, Chicago on 8 October 1958 and at the Dallas Gun Club on 14 Octobre 1958.

Something [?] was also shown on BBC TV around 18 November 1957. Gerald Best mentions in letters to the museum keeper, that they had been making a film for the BBC and it had been show on BBC TV including an interview with himself.

The film is lost, or at least presumed lost, and its existence is only known through publicity stills and written descriptions. Annick Aldo's aim is to trace the Rowland Ward mounting-of-an-elephant documentary if at all possible.

There is currently no confirmed title for the documentary. However, "Taxidermy in Piccadilly", the film screening event in Chicago; "An Elephant Is Created", a document about the mounting of the elephant for the Brussels Expo 58, written by Gerald Best and "The Elephant Story", notes detailing the modeling of the full mount by Arthur Manning, may provide indication of a potential title.

Could it be that this unique bit of Rowland Ward history has vanished without a trace?

CAN YOU HELP – if you have any information about this film or know anyone that might be able to help find this missing film, please drop a message !