Inside Susan Middleton’s World of Victorian Taxidermy

If you’re in the market for some truly original gift ideas (or you just want to add some edge to your decor), may we suggest taxidermy?

Susan Middleton’s unique Etsy shop, Beyond The Dark Veil, specializes in Victorian Gothic taxidermy and Entomology. She handcrafts stunning pieces containing rare specimens encased in elaborate shadow boxes.

We caught up with her this week.

Susan Middleton

SDTC: How did you get your start in Victorian Gothic taxidermy/entomology? 

SM: Aside from always having been interested in taxidermy and all things gothic, I don’t think I could have envisioned myself doing it personally, despite having majored in the fine arts. Initially, my artistic nature led me to studying make-up artistry, but life had other things in mind and I spent close to fifteen years as a cook at various restaurants in the city.

It wasn’t until my son turned one that I took the plunge. The absolutely horrible state of child care in Toronto made it more affordable for me to stay home with our toddler than go back to work. I would be working solely to pay for someone to watch him, so I decided to put my interests to use in order to a) supplement our household income and b) occupy myself with something other than Thomas the Tank Engine.

How do you find your specimens?

I use a few different suppliers for my specimens; some are local, others are from the other side of the world. I work exclusively with suppliers that are committed to ethically sourced and cruelty-free items. None of the specimens I use are killed for my work; all live a natural (and hopefully long) life.

I work mainly with butterflies, moths, small skulls, the occasional bird skeleton and bats. Every so often I will throw some insects – such as beetles or a tarantula – into the shop. While I would love to work with larger specimens, we simply don’t have the space for it, and depending on the size, the shipping costs become prohibitive for the buyer.

Can you walk us through a typical day in your life, from getting up until going to bed?

-Wake up
-Have a cup of tea and breakfast with my son. As he watches cartoons I’ll check social media, emails or order supplies
-Playtime/snuggles
-Get ready for our day
-Spread and pin butterflies/moths or prep resin frames or package orders up
-If orders need to be shipped we do a mail run and once back home I may work on a couple new pieces while my little guy has a snack or colours
-Photograph them once set and list them in the shop
-Update social media sites about new items
-Make lunch for my son and me
-Afternoons are just for playing/hanging out with the little man
-Make dinner when my husband comes home
-Dinner with the family
-Then we play/watch a movie before getting the little guy ready for bed
-Rest of the evening is spent relaxing with my husband and a cup of tea before bed

What is a little-known fact about taxidermy that would surprise people?

Many people do not realize how many laws there are regarding the importing/exporting of the items I work with. What you can work with, what can come into Canada, what can leave Canada. A specimen may be legal for sale within Canada but not to the United States, or it can but not in large quantities or for resale. For example, magpies are legal to sell/import in Canada/US and UK; however, crows are protected under the North American Migratory Bird Act and cannot be sold in North America.

You always have to check C.I.T.E.S. (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), custom agencies and so forth to make sure what you are doing is legal. There are some who do not, which can lead to big fines and sometimes jail time for both the seller and buyer. All my pieces state where I can legally ship to.

What is your favourite specimen to work with. Why?

I adore working with the various specimens of butterfly. The challenge of working with something so delicate and of course the wide spectrum of gorgeous colours is something I really enjoy.

I also love working with bats as they are my favourite animal. I donate regularly to bat sanctuaries. They are often misunderstood, so for me, it’s an honour to preserve them in a setting where someone can enjoy and admire their beauty.

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