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. 

 

Walter Potter and His Museum

Potter named two of his major tableaux on a poplar duet of the time, Upper Ten and Lower Five, in which a nobleman and a beggar compare lifestyles. The chorus goes like this:

Nobleman.—Well, I belong to the upper ten, the upper ten, the upper ten,
  Eight thousand a year is my income clear,
  And I manage to spend it too.

Beggar.—And I belong to the lower five, the lower five, the lower five
  I live in a dive, and sometimes contrive
  To pick up a copper or two.

Potter’s Upper Ten is a posh social club populated by red squirrels who smoke cigars, play cribbage and smoke port as servants wait on. His Lower Five is a squalid rats’ den in the process of being raided by police. 
 

The Upper Ten

 

The Lower Five

Potter’s other tableaux include a guinea pigs’ cricket match, kittens’ wedding, a kingfisher river bank, and a diorama of eighteen toads at play trundling hoops and swinging on swing sets. His Village School and Kittens’ Tea Party, are among his most widely-recognized pieces, and sure contenders for the most cooed-at specimens of the taxidermist’s art that have yet been displayed:
 

The Village Schoolhouse

 

The Kittens' Tea Party

Potter’s collection also included a monkey riding a wily goat, a church constructed from feathers, and an assortment of genuine freaks and oddities; animals that had been born with with extra heads, legs, and so on. These often drew disproportionate attention from visiting pressmen and sold better on postcards than the museum’s more artistic selections.
 

Potter's Oddities

In spite of changes in ownership and venue, Potter’s collection remained intact and on display throughout the 20th century, when magazines and television news brought it to the attention of a wider audience. At the same time, in the age of the funeral home and the factory farm, cultural attitudes were beginning to shift, and more and more visitors were coming away with a sense that there was something grotesque or inhumane about the collection. One patron threatened to report the museum to her MP for animal cruelty; a Swedish woman complained to her embassy in the UK after a television program about the collection aired in that country. It seemed to matter little that Potter’s specimens were, by that point, well over 100 years old, or that he had mostly been preserving animals that local farmers had already already killing of their own accord—taxidermy was just too creepy for some. 

And so it happened that, after the museum experienced difficulties in 2000-2001, the owners were unable to find a single buyer to keep the entire collection intact. The V&A, Art Fund, and other cultural institutions charged with preserving Britain’s heritage demurred, and individual benefactors failed to materialize in time. The core of the collection sold for to various buyers for a sum totaling barely £100,000, and its individual pieces were forever dispersed to the four winds. 

In February of 2008, the British public invested £26.5 million in a new collection of contemporary art for the Tate Modern.

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4 Comments to “The Curious Taxidermy of Walter Potter”

  1. Fascinating! I have nothing against taxidermy as long as no animal is killed for it.

    “animals that had been born with with extra heads, legs, and so on. These often drew disproportionate attention from visiting pressmen and sold better on postcards than the museum’s more artistic selections.”- why does that not surprise me?

  2. Ooh! This is cool! I don’t see why people object, I find this fascinating! I like something a bit different! Everything is so bland these days!

  3. Walter Potter’s Museum- a freaky, distubring, macabre place! One of the most bizarre exhibitions I have ever been to. But a great shame it’s no longer intact. The fascination with dead animals provides such a valuable insight into Victorian society. Walter Potter is, in many aspects, a forerunner to Damian Hurst and Gunter Von Hagens.

  4. Apparently Damien Hirst tried to buy the whole collection when it went on sale for much more than £100,000, but the auction house, for some reason, ignored his bid and parceled the pieces off as individual sales! I wonder what Mr. Hirst would have done with the collection if he had gotten it!

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