There is a strand of taxidermy that can’t be found in the Manchester Museum; anthropomorphic taxidermy. This is the practice of mounting animals dressed as people, and displaying them as if engaged in human activities. The greatest known exponent of this was probably Walter Potter, a taxidermist who specialised in creating anthropomorphic dioramas. He was born in 1835 in Sussex and worked during the Victorian golden age of taxidermy.
At the age of nineteen, Walter Potter created “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin”, based upon the nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” It contained ninety-eight specimens of birds and was displayed in the summer house of his parents’ pub.
While he earned a living producing traditional taxidermy he created more dioramas and expanded into new premises. Scenes in his museum included:
- A rat’s drinking den being raided by police
- A village school with forty-eight rabbits at lesson
- Kittens’ tea party
- Guinea pigs playing cricket
The “Kittens’ Wedding” scene was Potter’s last creation in 1890, which in 2001 was exhibited by the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of “The Victorian Vision” exhibition.
The collection was known as “Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities”, and it was so popular an extension had to be built on the platform of the local train station.
At the time of his death in 1918, there were around 10,000 specimens in the collection. His family took over the museum, however by that time enthusiasm for taxidermy was waning; as such, they found themselves having to defend against claims of cruelty, insisting that all animals used had died of natural causes.
The museum closed in the 1970s and in 1984 was sold to the owners of the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall. The museum attracted over 30,000 visitors each year, but the death of its taxidermist and a lack of money led to Walter Potter’s creations being put up for auction. In 2003, Bonhams sold the collection for around £500,000. No one is said to have come forward to take it as a whole, so it was divided and sold individually. However, controversial artist Damien Hirst claimed that he offered one million pounds for the collection, which was rejected. The family later sued Bonhams stating they hadn’t been informed about his offer. “The Kittens’ Wedding” sold for over £21,000 and the highest-selling item, “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin” was purchased above £23,000.
Whether Potter’s work is regarded as eccentric or distasteful to the contemporary eye, it is worth taking into account that during the nineteenth century the art of taxidermy was a popular practice and very much ingrained within daily life. Whether it is viewed as controversial or with intrigue, Walter Potter’s curious world certainly provokes conversation.
By Rachel Tierney