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.