While on the subject of macabre taxidermy I would be amiss without at least a cursory mention of the ridiculously interesting Walter Potter (1835-1918), king of bizarre anthropomorphic delights. A favourite among contemporary connoisseurs of the curious, Potter was a self-taught Victorian taxidermist from Bramber, West Sussex who created whimsical dioramas of (crudely) stuffed animals acting out scenes of human life and leisure. Rabbits learning lessons from tiny slates in a schoolhouse, guinea pigs playing a cricket match while cheered on by a guinea pig brass band, kittens having a summer tea party, squirrels playing cards…these are just a small taste of the of the imaginative tableaux Potter dreamed up and brought to life (har har).
In addition to preserving and posing each creature he used, Potter also painstakingly crafted each little implement and prop from old wooden cigar boxes, and placed them against painted back drops often reminiscent of the local area.
Although originally made for his own amusement, his macabre scenes quickly grew in popularity and he was encouraged to open his own museum in 1861, in the summer-house of the pub his family owned. His collection of anthropomorphic taxidermy grew over the years, supplemented by examples of physically deformed animals that he collected from local farmers.
Eventually his curious menagerie expanded into a full museum known as “Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities”, a must-see attraction which turned the village of Bramber into a thriving tourist destination for many years. When Walter Potter died in 1918 the museum supposedly contained 10,000 specimens, but the fashion for such morbid curiosities had already begun to wane. Remarkably, however, the museum didn’t close until the 1970s, when it was sold by his heirs and moved to various locations in Britain until it ended up at the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall. There it stayed until 2003, when the contents were auctioned off to individual collectors around the world, sadly separating the strange collection for good. Damien Hirst, himself a dabbler in the dark arts of taxidermy, notoriously offered £1 million to keep Potter’s collection together at the time, but his bid was apparently rejected by the auction house.
Despite the scattering of his collection, interest in Walter Potter and his remarkable anthropomorphic dioramas has certainly not faded. The internet has helped govern a revival in interest in curious collections and sensibilities by exposing new audiences to these sorts of obscure artifacts and hidden histories. The internet also enables individuals to view many of Potter’s creations in one place, helping it to retain some semblance of a cohesive collection. Most recently, a significant number of Potter’s works were even reunited from private collections in an exhibition curated by Sir Peter Blake at the Museum of Everything in London in 2010.
Pat Morris, a scholar on the history of taxidermy, has observed that Potter’s taxidermy has now become an internationally famous icon of Victorian whimsy. This, I think, is a key reason why Potter’s collections have inspired such a renewed sense of curiosity in recent years. Although his created world where kittens play croquet and squirrels drink port is indeed a bizarre sight, to contemporary eyes the truly curious thing about it is that this was once an acceptable form of museum display, a respectable pastime, and a delightful tourist destination. In an age of the slick, white-walled, politically-correct, ethically-meticulous, compulsively-edifying modern museum, it is the anachronistic sensibility of the bizarre dioramas that is so compelling to a contemporary audience.
Do you find Walter Potter’s taxidermied animals delightful or disturbing? Are you nostalgic for this type of whimsical, offbeat museum or happy to move on in history?
Elsewhere on The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things: