Walter Potter was born on July 2nd, 1835 in the village of Bamber in Sussex, England. After a brief schooling, he worked in his father inn, the White Lion, and pursued taxidermy as a hobby in a workshop above the stables. Potter’s first subject was his pet canary. The result was, typically enough for a first attempt, poorly executed. Yet Potter was not dissuaded. The fastidious process of skinning and stuffing suited him, and by the time of his death in 1918, Potter’s museum contained approximately 10,000 of his taxidermied birds and animals.
Potter’s uncanny animal art was inspired by his sister, Jane, who showed him an illustrated book of nursery rhymes that included the well-known poem “The Dead and Burial of Cock Robin.” Seven years later, Potter had finished his own rendition in 1861. The delighted reception of the tableau encourage Potter, and eventually in 1880 a museum was built across from the inn to house his expanding body of work. Early in 1914, Potter suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered, and on May 21st, 1918, Walter Potter died. He was buried in the actual graveyard on which he had modelled the "Dead and Burial of Cock Robin," the work which had launched his career.
content of the museum:
Besides his taxidermied pieces, Potter’s collection contained numerous other natural curiosities such as horns, skulls, teeth, mounted fish, and pickled specimens as well as various human artifacts from various countries including shoes, pottery, ivory bracelets, and a pair of Bali puppets in the form of a winged antelope and a dragon.
Potter’s collection of avian subjects was particularly impressive: merlins, peacocks, and peregrine falcons, blue tits, great tits, and lesser spotted woodpeckers, partridges, herons, a pink footed goose, canaries, albatrosses in flight, golden eagles, golden plovers, a scarlet ibis, a green woodpecker, Australian songbirds, magpies, and owls, an Alexandrine parakeet, a kookaburra, an albatross, and a penguin, to name just a few. Potter also prepare all manner of beasts from weasels, polecats, and foxes to buffalo, tigers, and bears, as well as a platypus, the snout of a crocodile, and a rare taxidermied snow leopard in a seating position.
Overall, the birds are skillfully mounted, but then birds have a limited range of expressions. Potter was not always so successful with his animals. A baby giraffe looked rather perplexed with his predicament. The skin on a lion’s legs gives the appearance of sagging stockings. Perhaps the worse figures are part of Potter’s maniacal utopian tableau called “The Happy Family” crowded with animals including cats, dogs, owls, frogs, falcons, a parrot, a monkey, a tortoise, and a piebald rat. The animals’ face are rigid and gaunt, giving no suggestion of ever having been alive, or if they were, it was not this world that they inhabited. Potter had more luck with a lamb born with two faces, which is posed quite prettily against a painted pastoral landscape.
Yes, indeed, a two-faced lamb, and hold your breath, the list continues with even more fantastic creatures. In fact, Potter seemed to have a bit of a soft spot for freaks of nature, and his collection included a pickled siamese pig in a jar, several ducks with more legs, tails, and eyes than I would care to count, ditto for piglets and kittens, a multi-headed calf and rabbit, a two-faced puppy, and a lamb with seven legs and two bodies [see several of them +]. If the very existence of such creatures was not eerie enough, by the time of the auction they had developed that crusty decrepitude unique to stale taxidermy. Born and taxidermied over a century ago, they linger, immortal and musty, in a realm of botched nature.
Taxidermy is never for the squeamish or queasy, but the sheer quantity and quality of Potter’s stuffed creatures totters the whole Museum over the edge of reason. But there is still more. Potter’s fame actually rests on several large anthropomorphic works which depict squirrels, kittens, rats, and guinea pigs engaged in various human activities. One tableau housed in a 62 x 73 x 24 inch glass-fronted cabinet contained seventeen taxidermied kittens with oversized glass eyes sitting around an elaborately laid table pouring tea and offering each other cake on tiny china plates while twenty other kittens enjoy themselves to the side, some playing croquet, some watching the game under parasols, and one riding a bicycle. In another, eighteen red squirrels play cards, gamble, smoke, and drink in their Victorian clubhouse; in another 48 rabbits learn their lessons.
The fame of Potter’s museum and, in fact, its inception centres on a single piece of taxidermy. In 1861, Potter exhibited “The Burial of Cock Robin” in the summerhouse of the White Lion’s garden. The taxidermic tableau had required seven years of work to complete, 98 specimens British birds, and a miniature bull constructed from fur stretched over a wood form. True to the poem a rook with a white collar and a prayer book acts the parson; a dove is the chief mourner; and the bull tolls the bell of Bamber church painted in the background (making the churchyard the same as that in which Potter himself was buried). The whole scene is housed in a large display case with a triangular roof and buttons mounted at the front, each of which when pushed light a verse of the appropriately macabre poem for Potter’s first full scale fantasy in taxidermy.
an account of the museum:
The following account of Potter's museum is taken from "Animal Fantasy: The Taxidermist of Bramber" by Derek Hudson, published in Saturday Book, no. 13 in 1953.
"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; as it is a native of South America, the supposition is that it disembarked from a boat carrying timber at Shoreham, and was exploring the neighbourhood. 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."
death of Potter:
After Potter's death at the age of 83 in 1918, the Museum was left to his daughter, Minnie, and then to his grandson, also named Walter. Walter's widow sold the collection, which passed through numerous owners until it finally was bought 19 years ago by Mr. and Mrs. Watts who moved the collection to the Jamaica Inn (made famous by Daphne DuMaurier) on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. With the advice and help of Dr. Pat Morris, a leading authority on taxidermy, and Mike Grace, resident taxidermist, the Watts restored, maintained, and augmented the collection, which received about 30,000 visitors a year. Tragically, with the death of Grace, the retirement of Mr. and Mrs. Watts and the curator, and after unsuccessful attempts to sell the museum in one piece, the collection was finally spilt and sold at Bonhams.
dispersal of the collection:
On Tuesday, September 23rd, 2003 at 10:30 in the morning, the contents of Walter Potter’s Museum of Curiosities was split apart and began being sold off item by item by Bonhams Auction at the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, England.
Ordered into 691 lots, the parade of Potter’s taxidermied ark took two days to pass piece by piece by the auction block and in total sold for an astounding £529,900 – more than twice the predicted sum. The highest selling item was Potter’s most famous work, “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin,” depicting the nursery rhyme by the same name. Potter’s rendition contained ninety-eight specimens of British birds and a miniature bull constructed from fur stretched over wood, which resembles nothing so much as a malformed ginger cat.
"The Death and Burial of Cock Robin." High estimate: $10,000; Sold: $33,100
“The Kittens’ Wedding.” High estimate: $10,000; Sold: $35,000
"The Kittens' Tea and Croquet Party." High estimate: $5,000 Sold; $26,450
“The Upper Ten” or “Squirrel’s Club. High estimate: $5,000; Sold $9,100.
“The Death.” (two squirrels dueling with swords). High estimate: $600; Sold: $2,000.
Monkey riding a Goat. High estimate: $1,500; Sold: $11,600
Two-headed lamb. High estimate: $1,200; Sold: $4,300
Six-legged piglet. High estimate: $500; Sold: $1,250
Stuffed Bear (as seen in Steptoe and Son). High estimate $2,500; Sold $10,760.
online information on Potter:
about the sale:
- Bonhams Auction House
Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities: Squirrels playing cards, kittens taking tea and bunnies learning their ABC are just part of the extraordinary and intriguing contents of one of Britain’s oldest private museums which will be offered at auction on 23 and 24 September
- BBC NEWS
Animal attraction for sale
Date: November 26th, 2002
- Museums, Libraries, & Archives
Walter Potter’s tableaux take centre stage as museum makes more than £½ million
Date: October 7th, 2003
- Damien Hirst's letter to the Guardian
Date: September 23rd, 2003
general information about Potter:
- A Case of Curiosities
Lots of pictures!
- Victorian Taxidermy
Even more pictures with some excellent information about Potter
- The Walter Potter Foundation
Dedicated to encourage the return of all of Potter's works to England
- Steyning Museum in Bramber, Sussex
a county museum in Potter's home town.