Guest Post: Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy

[Hi, folks! I’m off on a little-deserved vacation around Austria and Slovenia, so please enjoy a series of guest posts from my rad internet friends! This one is from Whitney; she holds a master’s degree in Northern Renaissance art history, but she will respond sincerely to any topic of conversation with, “I’m very interested in that.” -Mia]

I remember the first time I ever saw a piece of taxidermy. I was ten, and my class was visiting the Children’s Museum in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I was standing at the back of the crowd in a dark corridor, listening to our guide describe the next room. One of my classmates looked back, snickered, and pointed behind me. I turned and found myself almost leaning against the knee of a fully-grown, male polar bear reared back on his hind legs, front paws raised, face frozen mid-snarl. He was more than twice my height. For a moment I could not speak or move. Then it hit me: This is real. He was alive, and now he is not. And then: I will never be this close to a polar bear again. I relaxed. I noticed the length of his claws and teeth, his massive height, and how long and shaggy his hair was—not white, like I expected, but a dirty yellow. If I had dared, I could have run my fingers through it.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had experienced why humans began practicing taxidermy as we know it back in the eighteenth century. Taxidermy is intimately associated with natural history. The preservation of animals both exotic and domestic allows for close observation and study not possible with live specimens. It even preserves some species after extinction, such as the Dodo and the Great Auk.

Today we might associate taxidermy with hunting, and perhaps with attendant issues of waste, poaching, extinction, or cruelty. Taxidermy also suggests issues of class, both high and low, from big game hunting and safari to subsistence hunting and American frontier traditions. It typified Norman Bates’ creepiness as early as 1960’s Psycho. Taxidermy almost always inspires strong reactions of either revulsion or fascination. Some people think it’s morally wrong, but many practitioners, collectors, and plain old enthusiasts like me consider it art.

Whatever your personal opinion on taxidermy may be, there’s no denying that from the Saatchi Gallery to the hipster bars of East Nashville, taxidermy is undergoing a renaissance. For a new generation of fans just discovering its historical appeal, it’s wonderful to celebrate the release of a book on an exceptional artist, Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy by Dr. Pat Morris and Joanna Ebenstein. Walter Potter (1835-1918) was an amateur taxidermist in Sussex, England, who created a collection of truly delightful, bizarre, and completely unique anthropomorphic tableaux, or scenes of animals acting like humans. His collection of tableaux, “freaks,” and local fauna became a museum in his hometown, and after Mr. Potter’s death his son ran the museum until his own death in the late sixties. I could describe the collection, but it’s really better if you see it for yourself. Here’s a British Pathé newsreel on the museum from 1955:

 

The museum and its contents were sold and moved from Bramber to Brighton and Arundel for many years before finally being sold again and reestablished in Cornwall. Though the museum remained fairly popular, its owners sold the individual pieces at auction in 2003, disassembling the collection forever. In 2008, Dr. Pat Morris, a biologist and taxidermy collector, published his first work on Walter Potter’s museum. In commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the auction, his book has been rereleased in a newly illustrated and expanded edition. The front matter sketches biographical information on Walter Potter and traces the journey of the museum. There is a wealth of information on the changing attitudes toward taxidermy throughout the museum’s history, which no doubt led to the museum’s (relegation) as a historical oddity and its eventual closure. Fans of Victorian culture will find plenty to interest them in the literary inspirations for the tableaux as well as the slice of life they preserve. The tableaux of social gatherings are especially fascinating as records of Victorian life embodied in an ideal Victorian medium.

The real heart of the book is its gorgeous full-page photographs of the collection’s finest pieces. Potter’s tableaux, like the Renaissance cabinets of curiosity they’re meant to evoke, require close viewing for full appreciation. You’re meant to walk around their cases, interact with them, and put your nose up to the glass. How else could you appreciate the painstaking effort of Mr. Potter’s hand-crafted musical instruments in the guinea pig band, the utensils at the Kittens’ Tea Party, or the brocade gowns of the Kittens’ Wedding, carefully stitched by Mr. Potter’s daughter? You are meant to quietly discover the subtleties of the Rabbits’ School, to delight and marvel in their fabricated society. Now that the collection is scattered in private holdings, most of us will never experience that joy in person. Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy is the next best thing.

 

Further Exploration

+ As of last week, the book is now available for purchase on Amazon.com

+ The book’s official website (with a great blog filled with behind-the-scenes production anecdotes and many, many guest posts by artists inspired by Potter’s work)

+ Morbid Anatomy blog (run by Joanna Ebenstein, co-author of the new edition)

+ Info on the Morbid Anatomy Library, in case you’re ever up Brooklyn way

+ A list of upcoming Morbid Anatomy lectures, most the New York City area

 

 Image Galleries

+ Taxidermy4cash.com’s image archive, lots of less popular works

Acaseofcuriosities.com’s image archive, not great quality but lots of supplementary info

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2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy

  1. Shucks Mahoney says:

    This is so cool! I had never heard of the wonderful world of Walter Potter before, but I shall relish those links. I love the Horniman Museum in London which has a great taxidermy collection, including an overstuffed walrus.

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