Walter Potter’s curious creations may seem macabre to modern eyes, but they reveal a lot about Victorian attitudes to animals and death, writes Alastair Sooke.

A young couple are getting married. Dressed in a white vestment, a pastor presides over the ceremony, holding his prayer book while staring out, quizzically, at the congregation. Before him, the bridegroom gazes at his partner, who is dressed prettily in cream brocade. The witnesses look on in solemn silence, attired in morning suits and sumptuous finery.

But something about this group appears puzzling and, to modern eyes, a little unsettling: it doesn’t consist of people, but rather 20 stuffed kittens, posed to resemble humans, inside a glass box. Strange? Definitely. Macabre? Perhaps. Welcome to the distinctive world of the British taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918).

This elaborate tableau, which Potter finished around 1890, is known, simply, as The Kittens’ Wedding. It is the centrepiece of an ongoing exhibition at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York, about the history of taxidermy.

Humans have been preserving animals for millennia: just witness the craze among the ancient Egyptians for mummifying creatures of every size and shape, from baboons and pelicans to crocodiles and cats. The Victorian era, though, was the golden age of taxidermy, when stuffed birds beneath glass domes, for instance, became commonplace in parlours throughout Britain. This was the period that produced many of the exhibits in the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s show.

They include rare specimens such as an Australian lyrebird and a Great Argus pheasant. There are also ‘freaks of nature’, including two-headed calves and a four-tusked walrus, and ‘Shooter’, a three-legged chicken that gained fame as a circus sideshow act in the early 20th Century on account of its ability to ‘shoot’  marbles with its third leg.

The Kittens’ Wedding contains the perfect tension between the cute and the perverse – Joanna Ebenstein

And, of course, there is The Kittens’ Wedding, the highlight of a section about anthropomorphic taxidermy. It was the final tableau completed by Potter, who became the most prominent Victorian taxidermist, despite being self-trained, and has subsequently been admired by artists including Peter Blake and Damien Hirst. “It contains this perfect tension between the cute and the perverse,” says Joanna Ebenstein, the co-founder and creative director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum.

Till death do us part

How did Potter develop such a fascination with taxidermy – and why did his tableaux of stuffed animals, including rabbits, squirrels and frogs as well as kittens, become so popular? “Walter Potter was a young lad living in Sussex [in south-east England] in the 19th Century,” explains Pat Morris, historian and author of the book Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy. Potter’s father ran a pub, The White Lion, in the village of Bramber, and Potter worked there after leaving school. “He started stuffing animals because he was interested in wildlife, and I suspect he played truant a lot to collect birds’ eggs and that kind of thing,” Morris continues.

By the time he was 19, Potter had created The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, an extraordinary display illustrating the dark English nursery rhyme of the same name. Showcasing 98 species of British birds, including a weeping robin widow and an owl gravedigger, it is Potter’s “most famous and iconic piece”, according to Morris, who now owns it and displays it in his guest bedroom.

Potter’s anthropomorphic taxidermy won him recognition beyond Bramber. “Gradually his collection became quite famous,” Morris says. “It attracted more and more people to the village and the pub.” To cope with the demand, Potter’s museum of curiosities opened in the pub’s summer house in 1861, before later moving, twice, to bigger premises. “And that became his career,” Morris explains. “His museum was extremely well-publicised – there were newspaper and magazine articles about it syndicated across the world, even in the ‘30s – and visiting it was a regular daytrip out by coach from Brighton. It was very popular as a tourist destination in the early 20th Century.”

Potter suffered a stroke in 1914 and died four years later (he was buried in Bramber’s churchyard). But his museum remained open until the 1970s. In 1984, its collection, which boasted around 10,000 specimens, was sold to the owners of the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall.

Eventually, though, despite protests in the media by celebrities including Hirst, it was auctioned off in 2003 for more than half a million pounds. The top lot was The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, which was sold for £23,500. The Kittens’ Wedding, which is the only one of Potter’s tableaux in which the animals are fully clothed (right down to frilly knickers), went for more than £21,000. Earlier this year, it was sold again at auction for almost $120,000 (£98,000).

We may see darkness and perversion in Potter’s work, but that’s more to do with our changing attitudes towards death – Pat Morris

According to Morris, there is an irony to Potter’s prominence within the history of taxidermy. “A lot of his work is pretty incompetent,” he explains. The British artist Polly Morgan, who uses taxidermy to make art, agrees. “His animals had goggly eyes, and you could see the stitches on them,” she says. “They were amusing because they were so badly done. I don’t think Potter ever made much effort to be the best taxidermist.” Awkward taxidermy, incidentally, continues to amuse people today: the Crap Taxidermy Twitter feed has nearly 200,000 followers.

Still, continues Morris, Potter’s work “was emblematic of its age. People took to it in a big way: he sold huge numbers of postcards, for example. So it’s an important part of British social history.”

Morris also believes that contemporary responses to Potter’s work are blighted by misconceptions. In the aftermath of World War Two, he explains, taxidermy went out of fashion – “quite spectacularly so,” he says, “as people valued wildlife differently to a hundred years before. Some people said it was cruel, which is stupid because you can’t be cruel to a dead animal.” Far from being eerie or macabre, Morris argues, Potter wanted his tableaux to be “tongue-in-cheek and amusing. They were intended for children and families.”

At the Morbid Anatomy Museum, Ebenstein – the co-author, with Morris, of Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy – has experienced similar prejudices. When a story about their exhibition, illustrated with The Kittens’ Wedding, ran recently in The New York Times, it provoked lots of negative comments on the museum’s website and Facebook page. “All these people were like, ‘Oh my God, this is horrible – you guys are demonic, I can’t believe these hipsters in Brooklyn are showing art made out of dead animals,’” she says. “But this is an essential misunderstanding. We may see darkness and perversion in Potter’s work, but that’s more to do with our changing attitudes towards death. In the 19th Century, animals weren’t neutered, and Potter lived in the country where kittens and puppies were routinely drowned to take care of over-population. It’s not pretty but it’s true.”

Ebenstein continues: “I like to think of Potter as a folk artist – like a man whittling wood into little figures. In the 19th Century, taxidermy was in the air. It was commonly done by amateurs, and wasn’t considered gross or creepy in the way it is today. Potter was simply making things for his own amusement and the amusement of those around him, and his pieces tell such convincing and charming stories that they transcend the darkness and kitsch grotesqueness.”

“I don’t think Potter’s work is macabre at all,” agrees Morgan, who became interested in taxidermy after encountering the collection of a friend’s father who owned several Victorian pastiches of Potter’s pieces. “Sadly, ‘macabre’ is the first thing people reach for when they look at taxidermy. But, without wishing to sound facetious, you could say that a charcoal drawing is about death because it’s applied with dead wood. Just because taxidermy is made from the skins of dead animals doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically macabre.”

Alastair Sooke is Art Critic and Columnist of The Daily Telegraph

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