Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy by Dr. Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein. Blue Rider Press, 2014. 9780399169441.
Sarah: This is one of several books that Joanna Ebenstein has done through a couple of art imprints on strange historical things, often related to the odd and morbid. She runs the Morbid Anatomy Museum that I think lost its space recently, so now it’s a pop-up. Her co-author Dr. Pat Morris has written a lot of books on the history of taxidermy. Walter Potter was a guy working in the late 1800s in Britain, a taxidermist in a small country town.
Gene: This reminds of something I saw online.
S: Potter did normal taxidermy stuff for hire.
G: “Normal stuff?”
S: Then he started a hobby…
G: (looking at the book) What the hell is that?
S: This is someone else’s work that inspired him. It was Hermann Ploucquet’s work shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Potter may have seen it as a kid. It’s a retelling of the Reynard the Fox stories using actual stuffed foxes put in storybook poses.
G: He saw that and thought, “I could do that!”
S: The thing is, if you live in a farm town, there are animals…
G: I don’t like sentences that start like that.
S: …and life is cheap…
G: How many dead kittens are in this photo?
S: This is The Kittens’ Wedding. There were generally cats on the farm and they weren’t fixed. So when they had kittens, the farm would keep one of them and the rest would… not be kept. So Potter had access to a large number of dead kittens, and he made them into a wedding party.
S: Similarly, he had a lot of dead rabbits.
G: Where did he get the eyes for the kittens, Sarah?
S: They’re taxidermy eyes.
G: There’s a thriving market in fake animal eyes?
S: You just buy those as a part of your taxidermy supplies.
G: This is in the late 1800s?
S: Yes. He created a series of tableaux. His most famous was the Death & Burial of Cock Robin.
G: A large and creepy scene.
S: And The Kittens’ Tea and Croquet Party. He started exhibiting them in a museum that had some other stuff, but in which his work was the main focus.
G: This is so wrong. But that’s the fun of the book, I guess.
S: Yeah. The thing is, when he made these, they were just a curiosity, that he told a story in this way, a tourist attraction. (Rabbits’ Village School really upsets Gene.) Over the course of generations, these exhibits got more and more disturbing to the general viewer.
G: It’s not just me?
S: No, it’s not just you. This is interesting to me, how we feel about animals has changed so much. Maybe because our lives are further from the farm? Maybe because we’ve changed culturally?
G: How did he get access to these squirrels?
S: They were a pest, the farm dogs would kill them. They’re also a different type than are now common in the UK, because they got out-competed by grey squirrels.
G: There’s a squirrel smoking a cigar. Did he make those squirrel-sized playing cards?
S: Some of the stuff he made, some stuff he found or re-purposed. Eventually these little roadside curiosity museums couldn’t make enough money to support the people who ran them. The pieces ended up being crammed into smaller and smaller spaces, they got bought by different people. Eventually, in an auction in the early 2000s, this collection was broken up and sold off piece by piece. They are now all over the world.
G: I don’t want to look at these pictures anymore.
S: The reasons people pick this book up today are completely different than why people would have visited the museum. I kind of like that aspect of it, it’s this weird function of history that we can feel differently about he same object over time.
G: I’ll be honest with you, if you described this book to me I would think, “I would love to one one of those creepy little scenes.” After looking at this, I don’t want one at all. Would you want one?
S: No! If you ended up with it in your house, you’d walk by it every day and shudder.