Under the skin

Antoinette Ratcliffe is a taxidermy artist. Her ethically sourced animals come from veterinary clinics, the trapping community, and friends and family who message her when they have window strike birds or pest species that need to be collected.

Antoinette Ratcliffe at The Sick Bay
Portrait by Johnny Hendrikus for WellingtonNZ
Words by Francesca Emms

From her Shelly Bay studio, The Sick Bay, Antoinette Ratcliffe, a former veterinary nurse, accepts commissions and creates artworks for exhibitions. She also teaches private students and taxidermy classes at Zealandia.

It all started when Wellington artist Mica Still bought Antoinette a book, Taxidermy Art by Robert Marbury. “It had instructions in the back, and early one Saturday morning I worked on my first bird at the kitchen table – a myna. I’ve since attended a few international taxidermists workshops, along with having private tuition with Peter Wells at Wildmount Taxidermy. Recently I’ve been doing an online course because you can never stop learning – there are many ways to skin a cat!”

The “most Wellington” piece she’s created is Priscilla the Newtown Pigeon who resides at Black Coffee in Newtown. Made during the 2020 national lockdown, the final pose was influenced by Antoinette’s worry about the birdlife in the city “who would be waiting for their regular daily shared lunches”. The Black Coffee team spotted the pigeon piece in an exhibition and created a story about her being a lady of Newtown. “I think this was the best reaction I’ve had to one of my artworks!”

Antoinette loves the whole taxidermy process. “In the skinning process I get to see what happened to the animal, and sometimes I also get to see how they lived from observing the condition of their body. I get to care for their fur or feathers, and recreate a form which becomes their new insides.”

Alongside her passion for bringing animals “back to life”, she shares with us some of her favourite things about life in the capital.

Wellington’s best kept secret

It’s a toss-up between all the artist studios tucked in buildings around the city, and Isabelle’s massages at Wellington Apothecary. I do my best to see her at least once a month to give my body a rest. I always leave there feeling completely rejuvenated with a clear head.

My local

My favourite place to grab brunch is The Botanist at Lyall Bay. The Hash is the best, and don’t get me started on how good their coffee is!

At the studio my local is the Chocolate Fish Cafe, but on an admin day at home, it’s Gipsy Kitchen in Strathmore Park (with a side of cherry pie) or Black Coffee in Newtown. In both these places, you can sit with your head in your laptop or have a chat with the staff and just chill out.

On screen

The last Wellington movie I saw was Savage, and I loved it! It was so hard-hitting in its honesty and beautifully shot. If I’m looking for something with a bit of comedic relief my go-to Wellington viewing would be How to meet girls from a distance or the Wellington Paranormal series. The best New Zealand film ever made is Deathgasm – I wish it had been made in Wellington!

Art and about

There is some amazing surprise taxidermy around the city – the two lions (King Dick and Rusty who lived at the Wellington Zoo) in The Attic at the Wellington Museum, and the Kurī at Te Papa.

Recently I skinned my friend’s 30kg heading dog (called Holly) for a piece in the Art of Death: Wild Places exhibition, coming up at Katherine Mansfield House & Garden later in the year. It took 17 hours and nine scalpel blades.

I think my favourite art exhibition I’ve been to was the Yayoi Kusama show Mirrored Years at City Gallery in 2009. I’ve admired her work since I was in art school doing my BA, it was incredible to experience her installations in person.

Photography by Amanda Ratcliffe

Family talents

It’s so hard to choose my favourite Wellington artist because most of my Wellington friends are artists! But I’m gonna have to go with my sister Amanda Ratcliffe of AmandaShootBands. She photographs musicians, capturing moments backstage, or in their studios while they’re working. She’s got an incredible gift of stripping away the celebrity construct to show these artists as humans in beautifully candid way. She’s also really good a taking photos of neighbourhood cats.


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