Nowadays, a teenager with a hobby of stuffing dead animals is a budding psychopath. But in the Victorian era, taxidermy was all the rage. At age 15, Walter Potter, born 1835, began creating anthropomorphic tableaux of guinea pigs playing croquet, squirrels smoking cigars, and kittens having tea parties.
A new book, Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy, edited by Joanna Ebenstein and Dr. Pat Morris, makes it all a kind of memento mori, but with the unsettling power to also function as a cute distraction—think of it as the Victorian equivalent of Internet cat videos.
It all started in the family pub. Potter's elaborate scenes of four-legged creatures drew flocks of customers in. Then, in 1880, Potter opened a tiny museum in Bramber, Sussex, which delighted visitors with its morbid cuteness for, well, 150 years. Potter’s Museum was so popular that the Bramber railway station platform had to be lengthened to accommodate crowds of tourists. (We're all a little morbid, it appears.)
A museum disclaimer assured visitors that no animals were deliberately killed for exhibitions. Potter evidently had a number of sources for his furry characters; he had an agreement with a local farmer to provide him with “freaks of nature,” such as a four-legged chicken, a three-legged piglet, and a kitten with four eyes and two mouths. Farmers similarly provided him with kittens that were often killed off in a time before neutering was commonplace; this led some Victorian viewers to criticize Potter for animal abuses and for "grotesquery."
Getting to the truth is always a little iffy, but what's clear is that Potter was quite a character. He lovingly hand-made all the accessories for his little dead animals, including tiny inkwells carved from sticks of chalk for the baby rabbit schoolroom. (For the schoolroom, Potter asked folks to pitch in with 50 bunnies, but he only procured 49.) Potter's wife, Ann, his daughter, Minnie, and a neighbor were largely responsible for sewing the clothes in the “Kitten’s Wedding” scene, Potter’s final work, which included morning suits, brocade dresses, and frilly underpants.
Was Potter cute or creepy? (Can a man be both?) Potter's work challenges you to sort out your conflicting emotions of repulsion and endearment. Admit it: You kind of want to cuddle with that dead kitten in a dress.
Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy is available for $19.95 here.
[Photos courtesy of Blue Rider Press]