“Anthropomorphic tableaux” entertained Victorian audiences; when I was at a 2001 revival of Victoriana at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I turned a corner of the crowded exhibit to find under glass a fantastic scene. Twenty stuffed cats, arranged in 1890, at “The Kitten’s Wedding”. I burst into laughter (a rare occurrence) and summoned my wife and sons (then at an impressionable age) to this must-see display. As we chortled, other museum goers looked at us and the display, askance, silent.
This anecdote illustrates the changes between the time that Walter Potter crafted hundreds of animals, amphibians, and birds into intricately assembled dioramas for the delight of his fellow Britons, and today’s more uneasy reaction (well, for most people, perhaps) to taxidermy that so faithfully and eerily mimics our own rituals. From boyhood Potter sought, to teach himself how to dramatize nature surrounding him in rural West Sussex. London-based taxidermy expert Pat Morris and Brooklyn curator of The Morbid Anatomy Library and Museum, Joanna Ebenstein, present an illustrated compendium of her photos and his brisk text to explain what we know now about Potter.
First of all, born in 1835 and dying in 1918, this naturalist was no relation to Beatrix Potter. Her own renderings of animals resemble strongly the real ones Potter gutted, stuffed, and wired, but the authors surmise that since Beatrix’s first book did not appear until 1902, any supposed influence was from him to her, and not vice versa. As a lad, he “tamed jackdaws and taught pet starlings to speak.” In his village of Bramble, he began to collect the critters who comprised a tourist attraction, aided by a local brewery who saw such marvels as “The Athletic Toads” as a draw for consumers of their ales.
How did Potter create his displays? He began with cardboard models “until suitable animals became available” as Morris and Ebenstein diplomatically phrase the reality. I preferred when seeing those wedded felines to pretend they were all lovingly resurrected from kittens who had passed away peacefully. While a similar fiction was perpetrated by the museum curators who succeeded Potter, the facts prove that the beasts and birds arrived in less placid ways. Visitors brought in birds killed by cats or found on roads. Surplus kittens from farm litters were put to death. Stillborn rabbits and, at Potter’s own self-taught hand, rats and toads contributed to the skin and fur out of which he made art.
Nearly 50 rabbits crowd a village school, with classes on needlepoint, math, sewing, and writing. “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin” (as pop art pioneer Peter Blake comments upon in a preface) represents one of Potter’s most ambitious efforts. It took him seven years of spare time to build up all the birds needed to play out this nursery rhyme’s plot. Croquet and tea, squirrels at cards and rats at gambling, kingfishers within their underground lair, “The Babes in the Wood”, “The House that Jack Built” and, fittingly or ironically, ferrets hunted by miniature figurines fill out the tableaux depicted.
Part two of this short book reveals the details of these tableaux. Unlike the one at the Victoria and Albert, where the minutiae of the crowded ceremony could not be seen from a distance and under glass, the vivid color and captions help the reader envision Potter’s meticulous attention better than a museum display may. For example, the authors point out one blue-clad fellow. “This male cat looks disgruntled at the matrimonial proceedings. He once held a book open at the wrong page and glued to the stumps of his paws, but it is now lost.” This passage verifies the next lesson of this book: the fate of this collection.
As part three tells, the museum at Bramble was sold in 1970. Moved first to nearby Brighton and then Arundel, next to faraway Cornwall, after 150 years the collection, having been turned down by the National Trust, was auctioned off. No purchaser summoned up the funds to keep it all intact. A few postcards, many showing the “freaks of nature” that also engrossed past audiences more than present, flesh out these curious contents of Walter Potter’s now-scattered world, attesting to its eccentricities.