Dead and Beautiful: The Art of Taxidermy

Rats, squirrels, and dead kittens in their Sunday best… A new book explores the fantastic anthropomorphic world of Walter Potter, one of the pre-eminent taxidermists of Victorian Britain.

04.16.14 9:45 AM ET

Yes, those really are stuffed kittens dressed in finely detailed Victorian garb at a wedding, and that really is a squirrel at the club playing cribbage with a cigar hanging out of his mouth.

Welcome to the weird and strange tableaux by the once well-known taxidermist Walter Potter, the subject a delightful new book, Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy, by Dr. Pat Morris and Joanna Ebenstein.

Joanna Ebenstein and Pat Morris

The book details Potter’s work as one of the more prominent taxidermists of the Victorian Era, whose work became the foundation for a museum of oddities visited by millions during its existence, including the Bloomsbury Set and Queen Mary, and was covered by media outlets from as far afield as China. In Victorian England, taxidermy was popular both as a pursuit, and as an attraction.

Potter, who was apparently self-taught in the art, was born on July 2, 1835, in the West Sussex village of Bramber, and spent his entire life there. Despite the immense imagination devoted to a pursuit that might now be deemed unhealthy, Potter was in many ways an unremarkable small-town citizen. He was the parish overseer for over 30 years, worked long hours in his garden, married a local girl and had three children.

But this quotidian rural England background belied a prodigious talent for taking dead animals, stuffing them, and placing them in scenes often depicting popular nursery rhymes.

“There’s a kitschy aspect to the kind of work Potter does. If you explain it to someone ‘Oh it’s a kitten wedding or rabbit schoolhouse,’ they kind of giggle,” says Joanna Ebenstein, who talked to The Daily Beast about the new book. “But this kind of really sensitive studied genre scenes—they transcend the genre. They are not kitschy at all.”

Ebenstein, 42, is the editor of the Morbid Anatomy Blog, and the force behind the upcoming exhibition in June of Walter Potter’s works in the soon-to-be-opened Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York City. The museum is the culmination of a lifetime exploring the morbid, whether it be the taxidermy of Walter Potter, or the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo. 

What will soon be the museum started as a blog in 2007 after Ebenstein’s work on an exhibition about anatomical drawings. “The blog was really my way of unpacking all this stuff,” she says, and focused on the materials and photographs she had compiled. As the materials piled up over the years, Ebenstein turned them into the Morbid Anatomy Library, and also began offering classes on things like taxidermy.

The art of stuffing and mounting animal skins goes back at least to the times of the Egyptians, who mummified their cats, dogs, and other pets. However, modern taxidermy, which involves mounting the animals to make them appear as they would in real life, is roughly 400 years old.

Its rise coincided with European exploration, which drove a curiosity to see specimens from new parts of the world. The practice reached its peak in the Victorian Era, when naturalism became all the rage for museums and even household decoration. Other famous taxidermists, like explorer Charles Waterton and Hermann Ploucquet, captured the popular imagination.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

“It never occurred to me that this would have a popular audience at all today,” Ebenstein confessed. Due to its popularity, Ebenstein is opening a new museum, which will house her collection, as well as temporary exhibitions like that of Potter or the anatomist Frederik Ruysch.

For the book, Ebenstein tracked down Potter’s works, which ended up all over the world after a 2003 Bonham’s auction. She re-photographed them to capture the unbelievable level of detail and intricacy, as well as the equally enthralling yet troubling anthropomorphic quality of the animals. She says that the photographs are intended to convey the seriousness with which these works should be approached.

Over the course of ­­­six decades, Potter toiled away, producing numerous tableaux, many of which depicted scenes from Victorian life—weddings, tea parties, cricket, school, the club, and the pub.

Joanna Ebenstein and Pat Morris

The anthropomorphic quality of his work is remarkable. In the school tableau, titled Rabbit’s Village School, Potter included details like a book on the opening of the Westminster Bridge in 1862 while on a corner, one rabbit pupil is standing in the corner in tears for blotting his notebook. In The Kittens’ Wedding, one can see, for instance, one very grumpy-looking cat (as at any wedding there’s a guest not ecstatic over the new couple). At the tea party depicted in Kittens’ Tea and Croquet Party, while all the felines gossip, one has a facial expression of “Oh, no you didn’t,” that would fit right in on The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

His works are not merely windows into Victorian life, but direct reflections of it. In more ways than one, the tableaux have macabre backstories. They were often based on nursery rhymes, like ­­­The Death & Burial of Cock Robin or The Babes in the Wood.

Both deal with death, but the latter is particularly ghoulish, as it tells the story of two wealthy orphans who are placed in their uncle’s charge. The uncle hires hitmen to kill them to get their money, except one of the hitmen has second thoughts and kills the other. The children escape but die foraging for food in the wilderness, and die embracing each other. The other hitman confesses when  the uncle’s house burns down, and he is sent to prison and hanged.

To realize his pretty scenes, Potter employed some unpretty methods. For The Kingfisher River Bank, Potter killed a whole family of kingfishers (and seized seven of their eggs). Rats and frogs were killed by Potter as well, and some of the kittens had likely been drowned.

Joanna Ebenstein and Pat Morris

“We have to remember, this is a time before animals are spayed and neutered, and Potter was a county taxidermist and people drowned kittens and puppies routinely,” cautioned Ebenstein. “In Britain at that time, during the Victorian Age, there was a real passion for natural history. People had birds under glass at their home, women had hummingbird earrings.”

Potter got into press spats with rival taxidermists, as “every small town, every village, had its own taxidermist, that’s how popular it was,” explains Ebenstein. Thanks in large part to his skill and imagination, Potter has had much more staying power than his peers.

Today, Ebenstein had hundreds of applicants when the Morbid Anatomy Library held taxidermy classes, while in museums and for the general public, attitudes have shifted so that whereas once taxidermy served as a source of discussion about nature, now it makes us think of death. One huffy Swedish woman wrote her embassy in London after seeing a TV show about the collection: “Can this really be true that you do this to those kittens and other animals? If it is true I can not understand that anybody can be so cruel and cold-hearted. Is not animals anything else to you than toys?”

At one point, the museum felt compelled to put up a sign (misleadingly) reassuring visitors that no animals were harmed in the making of the tableaux.

Ebenstein says she is “interested in the context that creates these things, and why certain things come to be seen as bizarre to us, when obviously they weren’t at the time.” We’ve always had a fascination with death, she claims, that never changes. “I think what we consider the appropriate frame for these things, the limits of what is good and bad taste, that’s what changes over time.”

Joanna Ebenstein and Pat Morris

Potter would die before he was able to finish his final tableau, The Squirrels’ Court, with Judge and Jury. After suffering a stroke in 1914 from which he never recovered, Potter passed away on May 1, 1918 at age 82. The museum in Bramber, which housed his collection, passed to his sister Minnie, who ran it for 20 more years with her husband, and then her son, Edgar Walter Collins.

Collins would run the museum until his death in 1969, after which it and its contents were sold by his widow. The collection would spend the next couple decades floating from owner to owner, in locations like Brighton, Arundel, and Cornwall. Despite its obvious cultural import and popularity, when it was announced in 2002 that the collection would be auctioned, no museums came forward to buy the collection.

While rumors swirled that Damien Hirst offered a million pounds to save the collection, the contents of the museum were sold piecemeal by Bonham’s (and completely sold out). So if you find yourself fascinated by the rats, squirrels, and yes, drowned kittens, in Potter’s tableaux, don’t feel bad—you’re just a century too late.

Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy is published April 17 by Blue Rider Press.

For more on Joanna Ebenstein and the work of the Morbid Anatomy Library, read The Morbid Anatomy Anthology

For those seeking a how-to guide to taxidermy, watch this YouTube video.