Watching me all the while was the beady eye of a 13lbs 12oz brown trout, apparently a British record.
At my feet was a fox curled up as if asleep, unperturbed by a large, prowling mountain lion picking its way across a mountain outcrop, while a badger went about its business untroubled by either of them.
Douglas Coates, you see, is a professional taxidermist and a more fascinating man, passionate about natural history, collecting, acquiring knowledge and his love of Mother Nature and her creatures, I have yet to meet.
I admit, I thought long and hard about this week’s topic because I knew I would be writing about a sensitive subject. Douglas Coates treats his art with the utmost sensitivity.
Despite owning a large number of mounted and preserved wild animals, both pieces for sale
in his shop and in his own personal, private collection, Douglas is a nature lover.
For a man who cannot bear to see a dog ill treated — he has rescued several — it is no surprise when he explains that with the exception of the Victorian examples in his collection, all of the creatures with which he comes into contact have died from natural causes.
The snowy owl, for example, he had been commissioned to preserve for its owner, a breeder of the birds. The mountain lion, similarly, had died of old age in a wildlife park.
He was born in Jamaica into a well-to-do family with a strong military history. He moved to Llangollen aged three and today finds it difficult to walk through the town without being hailed at every turn by people who know him.
While other boys were given train sets and Dinky cars for birthday and Christmas presents, Douglas was given a stuffed bird or other creature, which he then proceeded to take to bits to see how it was made.
In those days, the art of taxidermy was a closed shop. No one who practised it was prepared to give any time to a youngster keen to learn the skill, and so Douglas taught himself.
As a young man, he served his time as a plasterer and for a while combined his job with his hobby. The late 1960s saw a revival of interest in taxidermy and Douglas decided to devote his time entirely to his hobby, becoming a founder member of the Guild of Taxidermists.
A new guild was formed subsequently and membership was by invitation only, with Douglas being one of its long-standing members.
Today, he both preserves and sets new specimens, either to sell in his shop, Riverside Taxidermy in Mill Street, Llangollen, or to fulfil commissions from around the world. He will also undertake restoration of Victorian pieces, either to order or for stock.
I suspect, however, that at least as much time is spent in detective work learning more about Victorian taxidermy and taxidermists and finding more of the finest examples for his private collection.
A long-standing collaboration with retired zoologist and taxidermy specialist Dr Pat Morris has resulted in numerous books on the subject. Douglas does the research and Dr Morris the writing.
The latest is about the celebrated Aberystwyth taxidermists Hutchings who were in business from 1860 to 1942.
That company, founded by James Hutchings (1842/3-1929) is worthy of an entirely separate column but suffice it to say that outside London, it produced some of the most significant specimens in the country, many of which are now in Welsh museums.
In addition to its obvious quality, Hutchings’ work also stands out for its distinctive glass-fronted cases, which a collector with an eye to detail like Douglas can spot at 50 paces.
He has spent 30 years researching the Hutchings firm and his personal collection contains many examples of their work, several of which were used to illustrate the book.
Another firm represented by a large number of specimens in Douglas’s collection is Van Ingen, which was based in Mysore in India, when the days of the Raj saw a booming business in big game hunting.
One of the largest and most famous of all taxidermists, Van Ingen employed 130 workers at its height in 1922.
Van Ingen specimens can be found around the world and although strongly against modern-day big game hunting, Douglas has made it his business to seek out some of the best for the walls of his home. Dr Morris has also written a book about the company — with the research from Douglas Coates.
It is Douglas’s fascination with research that makes his collection so absorbing. He owns a large library of books on the subject, one of which, Fauna of Shropshire, written in 1899 by H. Edward Forrest, is illustrated with pictures of cases of preserved birds from the collection of John Rock (1817-1881) who lived at Clungunford Hall, outside Ludlow.
Through painstaking detective work, Douglas tracked down the cases and one now stands in his sittingroom. Others used in the book can be seen in Ludlow Museum.
In another instance, he came across the old invoice from a taxidermist for work done to preserve and set a swan. Douglas contacted the name of the family on the invoice and by following lead after lead as the piece changed hands, he was ultimately able to acquire it. The case now stands in his hallway.
So what of the future? Sadly, but not surprisingly, good Victorian examples are few and far between. The days when cases of stuffed animals and birds were turfed out because they were considered to be in bad taste are long gone.
Now, good examples attract high prices with rare or extinct creatures selling for a premium over the ordinary.
Equally, the number of trained and qualified taxidermists is dwindling. Douglas Coates is one of a dying breed in more ways than one.
Pictures show from top:
Douglas with the snowy owl commissioned by a breeder of the birds
Douglas with the case of birds from Clungunford Hall
Your stick sir. A Victorian novelty stick stand modelled with a standing fox
Below, Do not disturb – the sleeping fox in Douglas’s shop