"A moveable host of metaphors, metonomies, and anthropomorphisms:" The Wondrous World of the English Taxidermist Walter Potter

2 July 1835, the English taxidermist Walter Potter was born in Bramber, Sussex.

“What then is truth? A moveable host of metaphors, metonomies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force,” (Friedrich Nietzsche)


A detail from "A Guinea Pig’s Cricket Match", the critters’ band striking up a tune*


They say that travels broaden the mind. Conversely, this means that staying at home narrows the said cognitive faculty. Or, at the very least, the general process of broadening might take some rather tangled paths. And this is what obviously had happened with the homebody Walter Potter who never left his native Sussex. Nevertheless, Mr Potter became one of the kings of Victorian whimsy. That he more or less grew up in the local pub might have helped things whimsicality-wise and at the age of 15, he found his true calling: taxidermy. He stuffed his own canary. Five years later, Potter created his first major diorama, populated with taxidermied local domestic and rural small game, picturing “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin” along the lines of a rather morbid British nursery rhyme. And Walter Potter would stay true to this calling for the rest of his long life, spent in his hometown Bramber, making his parents’ White Lion pub a museum, filled to the rim with his dioramas full of birds and rats and rabbits, mice and guinea pigs, kittens and whatever dead animal he could lay on, taxidermied and mimicking human life.

 

Walter Potter's "The Death and Burial of Cock Robin"*


"Mr Potter's Museum of Curiosities" certainly hit a nerve of the audience in the United Kingdom of the Victorian Age, Potter could make a living from exhibiting his creations, was married, had three children and died at the age of 82 in 1918. And even if the Britain of the Roaring Twenties had neither the mind nor the taste for Victorian and Edwardian follies anymore, the little shop of horrors of Mr Potter existed until the 1970s after his grandson had died and the family decided to sell the collection. It ended up in the “Jamaica Inn” of Daphne-du-Maurier-fame in Cornwall, as if the place, reputedly one of the most haunted spots in Britain, wasn’t spooky enough already. The collection finally went under the hammer in 2003 and is scattered to the four winds today, with each of Potter’s tableaux having achieved considerable prices and artist Damien Hirst’s offer of £1m for the whole collection was somehow ignored. Thus, one can marvel today in the #wunderkammer at the Victorian whimsy of Walter Potter and his eerily weird and wonderful creations of a kitten wedding, rabbits at grammar school and squirrels playing cards in their little rodents’ pub.


Walter Potter's "Rabbit School"