Can you imagine a world where you can see a monkey riding a goat? A group of rats paying close attention to a game of dominoes? A dozen kittens dressed in gowns to celebrate a marriage? As crazy as it seems, all of these scenes were actually captured by an English taxidermist named Walter Potter, and they enjoyed enormous popularity during the Victorian Era.
Located in the town of Bamber in West Sussex, Potter started putting himself to the practice of taxidermy during his teens after leaving school at the age of fourteen. From that point on, he dedicated his life to creating works of art where he captured scenes of the social world through the bodies of stuffed animals.
The first animal he stuffed was one of his pet birds, and afterwards, he wouldn't lose the chance of stuffing every dead animal that crossed his path, in order to do a work of art. As bizarre as it may sound, the practice of taxidermy during nineteenth century England wasn't as weird as it sounds today. Let's remember that this was the time of evolutionary theory, so we shouldn't be surprised that people were pretty used to looking at dead animals and admiring their traits. As a matter of fact, taxidermy was considered a branch of natural history at the time. Yet, what makes Potter's work different, from what his peers created, was the fact that he didn't stuff the animals for a scientific purpose or just to preserve the animals. He saw it as a means of artistic expression. And the weird results from his craft are definitely a sight to see.
During his lifetime, Potter's work drew a lot of attention at the town of Bamber in West Sussex. People were fascinated to see how he transformed animals and the weird social situations he put them in. Since his work enjoyed much popularity at the time, he founded a museum at the back of his father's pub that became home to the strange dioramas he created throughout his lifetime. In these weird and fascinating pieces he captured animals engaging in highly surreal scenes, such a squirrels playing poker, a flock of birds mourning the funeral of a cock robin —which was a central piece for the museum—, and the splendorous marriage of a couple of stuffed kittens.
Even though Potter also worked as a regular taxidermist during his lifetime, he didn't really excel at the craft. If we look closely into his pieces, it's clear that he didn't manage to fix the animals to the point of giving them a lifelike aura. Instead, they all look as if they had been taken out of a fairytale. Their bodies look exaggerated, as we can see in its puff-chested birds and the cartoonish and playful gazes of the mammals, which were made out of teddybear eyes. Nevertheless, while this makes his work look less realistic, it gives it a dreamier and more alluring artistic vibe.
His work relies on the poetics of turning the ordinary into something extraordinary. By placing common animals in everyday social activities, he calls the viewer to reflect upon the strangeness of our society and how marvelous and captivating our day to day experiences can be. For example, when we look at the diorama where a large hare is teaching a lesson in the classroom filled with tiny rabbits, it makes us reflect on the nature of education. When we see a group of kittens having a tea party, we meditate upon our social practices and how much we can enjoy each other's company. In this sense, Potter's work invites us to pay attention to how weird and beautiful it is to live in a society. It's an invitation to feel proud of just being people.
Potter's museum had quite a run during the late nineteenth century and it remained popular even after his death, but since the taste for taxidermy decreased throughout the twentieth century, the museum ended up closing two decades ago. Nowadays, his perplexing tableaux may appear cruel or macabre to our eyes. Nonetheless, they still have the power of making us reflect on what makes us people.
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