Walter Potter (1835 - 1918) was a Taxidermist, not a brilliant one there were far better throughout Britain, but what was different about Walter Potter was how he posed the taxidermy that he created. Instead of posing birds or animals on rocks or branches in natural scenes, or 'tableaux' as they were known, he depicted them in human scenes; playing cards, boxing, drinking and getting married.... to name a few.
Walter Potter began Taxidermy when he was 19, and it was around this time that he began to create his first and possibly most impressive tableaux 'Who Killed Cock Robin', a case that took 7 years to complete. This case along with several others have gone on display again at the 'Museum of Everything' exhibition currently running in London till Dec. (See below). The artist Peter Blake who has co-curated the exhibition, bought some of Walter Potter's creations back in 2003 when they were all auctioned after the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall decided to sell the collection. The cases ended up around the world, but several of the most important ones have been brought together for the exhibition.
Although these days taxidermy is often frowned upon, in the Victorian period it was a perfectly acceptable decoration on a wall or in a drawing room, like an Ikea picture is today! I can see why some people might be unnerved by the exhibits, certainly the more freakish ones like the two headed lamb, but I find the likes of the 'Upper Ten' a group of high class squirrels enjoying drinks and a game of cards, to be pure genius. Walter Potter managed to create not just a comical scene, but by adding so many little nuances and idiosyncrasies you actually believe these characters exist. It's like seeing a living version of Beatrix Potters illustrations - although most were created long before her first book were published (and she wasn't related!).
In essence he gave them life, which is quite ironic considering they are stuffed! Walter Potter prided himself on the fact that none of the animals in his tableaux's were killed specifically for them, they had all either died naturally or had been killed as part of natural culling which occurred regularly at that time by farmers and the like. The red squirrels pictured above for instance were in Victorian times considered a pest and regularly shot, now fortunately they are protected, nevertheless the red squirrel population in the UK has not been depleted through ten stuffed in a Walter Potter case, you need to look at the Grey Squirrel for the real blame for that!
If you want to know more about Walter Potter, his museum and the works he created then click here
If you want to see some of these for yourself then visit the Museum of Everything before the end of Dec, details here
“Like a creaky ghost train ride with lots of unexpected corners that take people by surprise!" that's how James Brett, the curator of 'The Museum of Everything', describes the latest exhibition which he co-curated with Pop Artist Peter Blake.
We have loaned some Punch & Judy Puppets and a Punch booth from our collection to the exhibition and went and set them up last Monday, two days before it opened to the public. These now stand alongside a magnificant set of Punch puppets from Peter Blakes collection, together with a vent Dummy and other puppets and empemera.
We were fortunate to be able to have a roam around the exhibition before it opened, which is being housed in a former Victorian Dairy (behind the library) off Primrose Hill, London. I won't ruin it by describing what is there, because you really do need to visit to get the full experience 9and a few surprises!), but it is a fantastic collection of Victorian curiosites and entertainment from Circus, puppetry, fairgrounds and even the great Walter Potter taxidemery (more on that later......) The exhibition runs from now (Oct) until Dec 24th and i couldn't recommened it - you should go and see it - it's candy floss for your eyes!
I seem to have a bit of a Circus theme going with my reading at the moment, just finished "Jumbo - The Greatest Elephant in the World" by Paul Chambers. Though not a very long book it gives a truly fascinating account of the life of an African Elephant that became a huge celebrity (literally) in both Britain and America.
In essence it's a sad story. Right from the very beginning you read of the harrowing way Jumbo (considered then a runt as he was so small) was torn from his mother in what can only be described as barbaric hunting methods by a tribe that was more used to hunting to kill, than to capture animals alive for European animal traders. We then read of his first captive home in a zoo and menagerie in Paris where he was overshadowed, and therefore neglected by keepers, due to more popular elephants in the Zoo. His lucky escape from Paris, when sold to London Zoo, meant that he didn't suffer the same fate as the other zoo animals did; during France's war against Prussia, the Prussians managed to completely enclose Paris, which left the Parisians starving and ultimately having to eat the animals that remained, including the elephants.
As his popularity grew in London Zoo so did his notoriety which managed to reach across the Atlantic to Phineas. T. Barnum the infamous circus owner and showman who was determined to own Jumbo whatever the price. His instinct proved right and after many weeks of waiting, and a lot of media manipulation byBarnum, the king of spin, Jumbo arrived in the USA to a hero's welcome with the streets of Manhattan lined with literally thousands of people. Unfortunately although Jumbo did live for many years with the circus, proving to be the most popular attraction and focus of attention the whole time, his life was brutally cut short in Ontario, Canada when he was hit by a freight train whilst loading into the Barnum train to move onto the next destination. Never missing an opportunity Barnum had a taxidermist on hand who, together with 5 assistants, managed to stuff the hide of Jumbo and eventually he continued to travel with the circus until he was finally donated to the Barnum Museum at Tufts University near Boston MA, of which Barnum was a benefactor. Jumbo stayed on display there, proving to be a lucky mascot for the football team, until the Museum sadly burnt down in 1975 and all the contents, including Jumbo, were destroyed. His bones however, which Barnum also displayed, still reside in the stores of the American Natural History museum.
Aside from the story of Jumbo, there is another equally sad story, that runs throughout the book and that is of his keeper Matthew Scott. Scott became Jumbo's keeper from the day the elephant arrived at London Zoo, ultimately moving with him to America and being with him at the time of his death. Already established in the Zoo he was regarded as someone who had a very natural way with animals and could make them behave and conform like no other keeper could. Although he had never worked with Elephants before Jumbo he was given to him to care for and he took the role very seriously. The author throughout the book seems to flip back and forth between describing Scott as a manipulative, loner who used his influence over Jumbo to carve out a greater role for himself, to that of a deeply caring individual whose commitment to the care of his animals meant that he forgo everything else in his life. I think on balance Scott was certainly the latter and that although he was no doubt a difficult and prickly character at times, he was actually treated quite badly by all he worked for throughout his life. He cared for Jumbo like a devoted servant and in turn Jumbo returned the favour by returning that affection, following his commands and indeed even saving his life at one point. There was no doubt they came as a package and it was a double tragedy when Jumbo was killed that the man laying uncontrollably sobbing at his head had not only lost his sole companion but also his career, livelihood and home all at the same time. Very little is known of Scott after Jumbo's death, he did travel for a while with the stuffed Jumbo, but after the popularity of that waned and it was donated there was little else for Scott to do, he was basically pensioned off, given some money to go back to London and told to leave, but he couldn't go and at one point he was found in the shed where the stuffed Jumbo was being kept in storage. There is no known death certificate in the UK for Scott and he doesn't appear on any census after he left with Jumbo for the USA, so it is presumed that he died in America possibly of a broken heart.
It truly is a fascinating book written in a very approachable style and with meticulous research. As with the Grimaldi booked reviewed in an earlier post I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Circus, showmen, Victoriana or just a genuine good story!