July 20th, 2008
Was a time when visits precipitated calling cards, a hand fan pressed to the lips spoke: You may kiss me, and there was a taxidermist in every hamlet, no matter how small. I’m speaking of course of the Victorian era.
Besides well-mannered guests, the well-appointed Victorian parlour would likely be stuffed with all manner of natural knick-knackery, from horse hoof inkwells to miniature Tree of Life displays, adorned with jewel-toned birds.
I have long had a fondness for old-school taxidermy, particularly those arranged in tableau or diorama, such as the work of Walter Potter, the taxidermist of Bramber, Sussex, who favored grand-scale anthropomorphic scenes.
Potter created some incredible (and perverse) tableau with his stuffed animals, such as a pair of dueling squirrels, thirty-seven kittens at a tea and croquet party, and forty-eight bunnies inscribing ledgers in a classroom.
The most famous is a tableau involving ninety-eight specimens of British birds, and seven years of labor, illustrating the child’s poem Who Killed Cock Robin? He completed this work at age nineteen.
Potter may have been inspired by the work of Hermann Ploucquet whose exhibit at the Crystal Palace Great Exposition of 1851 delighted Queen Victoria. Here is one of the exhibition bookplates, The Very Attentive Physician.
Sadly, the museum Potter established in 1861 was dismantled in 2003. Below is an excerpt from “Animal Fantasy: The Taxidermist of Bramber” by Derek Hudson, 1953, describing the museum.
The first impression of the interior of the museum is a glorious Victorian jumble of odds-and-ends. Stuffed birds and animals abound, including a number of freaks. There is even an enormous Coypu rat, forty inches long, which was shot on a bank of the river Adur, near Bramber…An alarming apparition!
But I soon forgot the rat in the contemplation of some old musical instruments, a length of telephone cable, an albatross, a Siamese war saddle, butterflies, beetles, boomerangs, the front foot of an Indian elephant made into a waste-paper basket, and twelve engravings of the Wandering Jew by Gustave Dore.
As the eye accustomed itself to the rich, inconsequential mixture, the major works of Walter Potter – about a dozen of them, in their show cases – gradually detached themselves from their surroundings. I became aware of a whole new world of fantasy, in which kitten played croquet with fastidious enjoyment, squirrels gravely drank wine and ate nuts, and rabbits frowned over their slates in the village school.
Neuchatel has a very fine Musée d’Histoire Naturelle we have finally managed to visit, and in it, we discovered some of the most loving and humorous modern taxidermy displays. Not surreal as the Potter pieces are, but in the spirit, I thought. Here are a few urban-themed favorites.
Though the displays were not as gorgeous or wonder inspiring as the 1920s North American and African halls of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum of my childhood, they were surprisingly thoughtful for a small town collection.
There was also a lovely room of just birds, where you could push a button and hear announced first the species name in Latin and then the call it makes. Totally magical–a whole room of crying, sighing and singing.
Still, nothing will ever be quiet like walking those L.A. halls for me…
The title of this post–inspired by Potter’s creepy kitty wedding–is a quote from Warhol’s Holy Cats, a slim volume from the early 1950s depicting his image of “pussy heaven” where “Some Cats Wear Hats…Others Wear Chapeaus.”