The Curious Taxidermy of Walter Potter

23 December 2011

While the preservation of hunting trophies may be the best-known use of the taxidermist’s art, fans of Walter Potter’s anthropomorphic tableaux can attest to the fact that it has its other, more silly uses. Potter (1835-1918) was a self-taught taxidermist who grew up in the rural community of Bramber, Sussex, at a time when stuffing dead animals was considered to be a suitable hobby for young boys. For technical assistance, he would have had any number of popular manuals at his disposal. For inspiration, he had his younger sister’s illustrated nursery rhyme books and the Great Exhibition of 1851, where anthropomorphic taxidermy was first displayed to the British public. 

His first major contribution was an elaborate diorama depicting the death and burial of Cock Robin, which he began at age 19 and took seven years to complete. Each of the animals from the English nursery rhyme are represented, behaving in character; a rook with a book is parson, a mourning dove leads the funeral procession, an owl digs the grave. 
 

The Death of Cock Robin

Potter was encouraged in his hobby, which brought customers to his father’s inn. By 1880 his collection had grown into an important attraction for the tiny village of Bramber, and came to be housed in a separate museum building on land next to the inn. Here he welcomed visitors, received donations of small game from local farmers, and steadily improved his displays. The museum became so packed, and its tableaux so rich in detail, that returning patrons were never at a loss to find some new and interesting feature that they had overlooked before. 

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Before Dracula, there was Carmilla

10 December 2011

“Love will have its sacrifices. No sacrifice without blood.”

—Carmilla

First published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was destined to become the universally-acknowledged masterwork of vampire fiction, but it was not, by any means, the first of its kind. Stokers genius consisted not in having invented the modern vampire monster, but in the imaginative way he synthesized and expanded upon the ideas that prior authors had already been exploring.

One of these was J. Sheridan Le Fanu, whose 1872 tale Carmilla provided a template for many of Dracula’s best-remembered characters and motifs, including the occult doctor (Dr. Hesselius), and the lonely Gothic castle set in a barbarous region of Europe. Many of the proper names in Dracula, in fact, are direct allusions to Carmilla’s characters and settings: “Karnstein” became “Carfax,” “Reinfeldt” became “Renfield,” and so on. Le Fanu’s protagonist, Laura, corresponds roughly to Stoker’s Mina; both are afflicted young women whose souls come depend upon their families’ efforts to unravel the vampire mystery. 

Carmilla is told in the first person, from Laura’s point of view. She is a lonely Englishwoman who lives with her father and governesses in an ancient scholss in Styria (southeast Austria). After receiving word of the sudden death of a would-be guest, Bertha Reinfeldt, Laura and company gather on the castle drawbridge to admire a calm, full-moon night when an out-of-control carriage crashes in upon the scene. A weak, unconscious Carmilla is thrown from the compartment in the accident that ensues. Her “mother,” a mysterious noblewomen, professes to be on an urgent, secret mission, but reluctantly consents to leave Carmilla to recover in the family’s care. 

Laura quickly recognizes Carmilla from a dream she had as a child; a dream of being visited in bed at night, and bitten on the shoulder. Carmilla, too, professes to remember Laura from a corresponding dream, wherein she awoke to find herself in an unfamiliar bed chamber, and Laura there. Quickly, they develop an intimate friendship, characterized pressings of hands, kissing of cheeks, and plenty of blushing. 

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“Gloom,” a Literary Gothic Card Game

26 November 2011
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Gloom is a game of creative misanthropy wherein players compete to enrich the lives of their character-families with as much misery as possible, while cursing their opponent’s houses with plenty of unwanted light and good fortune.  It is played on a set of transparent cards, most representing events of good or ill fortune that befall the characters they are played upon; tragedy cards score negative “pathos points” (good), and blessings positive (bad). As these accumulate atop one another, each character’s biography unfolds. 

On the surface, Gloom is a straightforward, turn-based strategy game, but it is designed with storytelling in mind. Players are encouraged to narrate their moves, imagining how one event might lead to another. Often, a solid tactical decision can make for a particularly challenging (or particularly silly) story:  
 

Balthazar the hound is cursed by the Queen.
 

—>

 

It happened in an instant. The months of finishing school—wasted. The lavish balls in the Waterloo Room—gone forever. Balthazar had struggled against every obstacle to overcome his canine proclivities and refine his manners to the standards of the Court, only to be undone by a single moment’s indiscretion. If only he had known that Her Majesty was touring Hyde Park that fateful afternooon, he would never have let himself be seen licking his balls. 

Happy modifier cards are normally played upon an opponent’s character, and can be used to erase preexisting tragedies. Here, a character worth -10 Self-Worth points is modified to score +10, making Professor Slogar less valuable to her owner:

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Mord Em’ly’s Late-Victorian Moxie

12 November 2011

Betty Balfour appeared in the 1922 silent film version of Mord Em'ly

Published in 1901, William Pett Ridge’s Mord Em’ly opens to a pitched battle between rival girl-gangs on the mean streets of south London. Hair is pulled, faces are scratched, and innocent hats are senselessly trampled. If you have ever succumbed beneath the tedium of a Dickens novel, here is something a bit more lively. 

The story follows its charismatic, working-class heroine, Mord Em’ly (“Maud Emily”), as she is arrested for shoplifting at the age of twelve and sent to an industrial school. Later, she escapes and returns to London only to find that her gang has moved on, and that the old neighborhood has lost some of its luster. In the intervening years, she has grown up a bit, and she continues to grow as she is forced to confront a new set of conflicts, including an abusive, heretofore absent father who turns up to demand money. 

Mord Em’ly is no damsel in distress, however, nor is she a hapless victim of social conditions. She has a strong, self-reliant personality, and an eviscerating, razor-wit that permit her to maintain her independence in spite of a cast of characters and institutions who are alternatively out to rescue or enslave her. Her story is colored by ironical descriptions and amusingly sharp, caustic dialog—as in this exchange between Mord Em’ly and an aggressive stranger who bullies her girlfriend, Ronicker, at a boxing match: 

“Make her shut her head, then,” said the lean-faced man aggrievedly. “I don’t want no truck with her. Make the—”

“Less language,” commanded More Em’ly. “Don’t forget you’re in the presence of ladies.” The lean-faced man laughed ironically.

You!” he said vehemently. “You call yourselves ladies! You’re what I call—well, I won’t say what I call you. I’ve got gentlemanly feelings beneath a ‘omley exterior, and I know how to be’ave as well as anyone.”

“You cert’n’y are ‘omley.”

“If I meet with ceevility,” said the lean-faced man, in a dogged way, “I give ceevility back. If I meet with inceevility, I give inceevility back. If I’ve got a single fault—”

“Who’s been telling you that?” 

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The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

29 October 2011

Imagine that you wake up one morning, sit at your computer, and you are bombarded with links to a developing story from a major news outlet: Stephen Hawking, by making novel use of Cambridge University’s new quantum supercomputer to analyze data from SETI’s telescope array, has discerned that the universe is awash with signals from intelligent life. It reads like a regular science story, at first, but soon it is revealed that Hawking and his colleagues have tapped into an extra-terrestrial television transmission, and are even now watching, breathless, as the first, dream-like images of alien civilizations display themselves on the Q-computer’s tiny monitor.

You and your friends refresh your browsers compulsively, talking over each new description that emerges of strange alien races and the exotic landscapes they inhabit, as gleaned from upon the wacky sitcoms and low-budget reality shows that they are indiscriminately beaming into space. Then, questions are raised, skepticism emerges. You begin to have doubts. Eventually, you realize that you have been taken in by a clever hoax—you ought to have known better than to trust Fox News, after all—but despite the deception, you find that you cannot help but appreciate how, for one shining moment, people everywhere had set aside their petty rivalries and believed in marvels from above.

Such is how the people of New York City must have felt during the summer of 1835 when the New York Sun published a series of articles describing the startling lunar discoveries that had recently been made by the famous astronomer John Herschel from his observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. Using cutting-edge “hydro-oxygen magnifiers,” Herschel had developed a powerful new telescope that could achieve an astounding magnification of 42,000x—enough to resolve objects on the lunar surface as small as 18 inches in diameter—and project the images onto the wall of his observatory. Purporting to be a reprint from a supplement to the (non-existent) Edinburgh Journal of Science penned by Herschel’s assistant, Dr. Andrew Grant, it contained just the right mixture popular science buzzwords and technical minutia to render itself plausible.

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The Woodcuts of Fritz Eichenberg

14 October 2011

The Master at Work

It is difficult to conceive of an artistic medium more naturally suited to the Victorian Gothic than the woodcut, or a graver whose style so powerfully evokes the sinister and tempestuous spirit of the genre so well as Fritz Eichenberg. Distinctive for their dramatic composition and stagecraft, wild, curvilinear textures and darkly-hewn, agonizing characters, Eichenberg’s illustrations are featured in the work of the Brontë sisters and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, and a laundry list of other classic writers distinguished for exploring themes of social injustice, spiritual conflict and emotional turmoil.

Born in Cologne in 1901, his Jewish descent and outspoken opposition to the rising Nazi movement obliged him to emigrate to America in 1933, where he went on to work with such publishers as the Limited Editions and Heritage Club. While German and British aircraft were dueling over the skies of London, he was illustrating what may be the definitive editions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre: an elegant, two-volume set designed by Richard Ellis and issued by Random House in 1943.

In the novels of Emily and Charlotte, he found characters that seemed to “come straight out of Dostoevsky—with a British accent.” The authoresses own tragic stories, he moreover remarked, endowed the novels with “dramatic impact and shocking authenticity.” He took particular inspiration in the “somber,” “haunted” landscape of Brontë country, which Emily featured to greatest effect in Wuthering Heights, with its two lonely manor houses set upon her beloved moors. 

Wuthering Heights

 

 

 

 

In the introduction to Eichenberg’s retrospective, The Wood and the Graver, Alan Fern wrote:

It is given to only a few illustrators to create images that so exactly suit the text with which they are working that their pictures fuse with the author’s words. Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland is one of these rare cases. Eichenberg’s Wuthering Heights may possibly be another. Having seen his Heathcliff, I, at least, cannot imagine him any other way.

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Elizabeth d’Espérance’s “Shadow Land”

1 October 2011

Elizabeth d’Espérance grew up in a tired old house on the East End of London, filled with dark, oak-paneled halls and desolate, forbidden rooms that compelled her to explore. “I was very fond of wandering about from one empty room to another,” she wrote, 

and of sitting with my dolls on the broad low window seats, whence I would be fetched with an exclamation of horror and wonder by our servant, who considered my liking for the haunted rooms as “uncanny” and unnatural, threatening me with the ghosts and their vengeance if I persisted in invading their domains by myself.

I could never quite understand nurse’s remarks about the lonelines of the rooms, though her threats about the ghosts frightened me. To me the rooms were never empty nor lonely;—strangers were constantly passing to and fro, from one room to another; some took no notice of me, some nodded and smiled as I held up my doll for their inspection. I did not know who the strangers were, but I grew to know them by sight…

On this note, d’Espérance sets the tone for Shadow Land, her 1897 memoir of life as a medium during the heyday of Victorian spiritualism.

Her career began, naturally enough, in experiments with table rapping and automatic writing, but before long she was performing full-form manifestations in the manner of Florence Cook, Annie Fairlamb, and other star mediums of the era. Her usual controls were “Walter,” a light-hearted American soldier, and the professorial “Humnur Stafford,” but she is best remembered for manifesting female spirits like the “Yolande:” a playful Arab girl whose favorite trick was to materialize (“apport”) exotic flowers into the room. 

Accounts of purported spectral phenomena like these are familiar to any student of spiritualism. What sets Shadow Land apart is that d’Espérance weaves them into a powerful, first-personal narrative that delves into the subjective experience of giving over one’s body as a conduit to the spirit world, together with its attendant doubts, fears and anxieties. Enough has been written about whether it is possible for a medium to lend her substance to strange, otherworldly entities—Shadow Land gives us a basis to imagine what it might actually feel like to do so.

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