When Walter Potter, the eccentric teenaged son of a Sussex publican, completed his first full-scale work of taxidermy in 1854 he could not have imagined the legacy it would leave behind. The Death and Burial of Cock Robin is an eerily detailed diorama based on the macabre English nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin? (“Who saw him die?” “I,” said the Fly/ “With my little eye, I saw him die.”) It includes 98 species of British birds and takes place in a miniature churchyard—complete with a freshly dug grave and prone robin being carried by aviary pallbearers in a tiny casket. Looking at it now, “creepy” is the word that springs immediately to mind, second only to “cool,” and that is because Walter Potter and his strange tradition of stuffing and arranging dead animals in anthropomorphic fashion is the hottest art trend to hit London since Damien Hirst suspended a shark in formaldehyde—an odd kind of taxidermy in itself.
While taxidermy went out of fashion during the latter part of the 20th century, it is now an established part of the East London arts and crafting scene, with classes in cat skinning being offered all over the city and cleverly mounted carcasses popping up in galleries, museums and shops. Curio-design markets from Brick Lane to Portobello Road are peppered with vintage and new examples of the form. On a recent shopping trip, I encountered a family of baby mountain goats, leopard and fawn trophies and countless shadow-boxed butterflies and birds under bell jars. Once dismissed as a passing interior design fad, it now seems stuffed animals are here to stay.
While the revival has been thriving for some time—the London Taxidermy Academy, a school which offers “fun and freaky” workshops on such popular subjects as “black rat taxidermy” and “two-headed rabbits,” opened its doors in 2010—the trend is set to soar to new heights with the much-anticipated publication of Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy, out this month.
The new art book, co-authored by Pat Morris, a retired British biologist, mammal ecologist and taxidermy historian, and Joanna Ebenstein, a New York-based artist and curator, tells the story of Potter’s collection of odd delights, which for years attracted tourists to his small museum in Bramber, Sussex, the village where he grew up. In his time, Potter was the grandfather of the art of skinning and stuffing small animal bodies. His scenes, which were typical of the morbid-yet-saccharine sensibility of the era (so-called “Victorian whimsy”), included a village classroom of 48 rabbits complete with miniature school desks, slates and chalk, a party of hamsters playing cricket and a large wedding party of kittens dressed in their finery, right down to the frilly lace knickers hidden under their petticoats. After Potter’s death, the museum continued to be run by his family, but later closed in the 1970s. The collection moved around southwest England until 2003, when the owners announced it was up for auction. The artist Damien Hirst famously offered $1.65 million for the entire collection but the vendors refused; Potter’s legacy was auctioned off piece-by-piece, garnering little more than $824,000. Hirst called the loss of the collection “a tragedy.”
Indeed, had the keepers of the Potter collection waited just a few more years they would have seen a huge resurgence in this creepy Victorian art form, with a corresponding spike in price tags. London taxidermist Polly Morgan sells her pieces to serious collectors in the high five figures, having been first discovered and commissioned by the graffiti artist Banksy in 2005. Unlike Potter, she specializes in discomfiting visual jokes that comment on the morbidity of the form itself. Her 2005 piece Rest A Little On the Lap of Life features an albino rat curled up in a champagne coupe beneath a chandelier, and was purchased by the collector Vanessa Branson for an undisclosed figure. Her gallery also offers limited editions of Sunny Side Up, a baby bird in pool of blood, having pecked its way out of a light bulb, and Small Still Birth, a limp sparrow being lifted by a floating red balloon, for $1,000 and $1,650 respectively. Widely considered the reigning queen of the city’s taxidermy scene, Morgan has said her work stems not from an urge to resurrect, but to explore the relationship between beauty and mortality. “I wanted to find taxidermy where the animals looked dead,” she has said. “I didn’t understand why everything looked alive.”
Like most contemporary British taxidermists, Morgan abides by the strict code of conduct espoused by the Guild of Taxidermists. A disclaimer on her website states that no birds or animals are killed in the making of her work—though she does accept donations of roadkill and occasionally advertises to buy rare birds that have died of natural causes. The most she’s ever paid was $660 for a pair of white-backed vultures, which were used in her Great Flying Machine, which sold to a German collector for just under $165,000.
More traditional taxidermy has also seen a boom in recent years as British design aficionados began to covet the look of pink flamingos and baby gazelles in their reception rooms. Companies like Alexis Turner’s London Taxidermy will sell or rent you a stuffed giraffe, elephant or zebra. There’s also Get Stuffed, an independent taxidermy boutique in London’s Islington neighbourhood, which specializes in mounting on a smaller scale.
Gone are the days of customers having their deceased pets mounted—Britain’s new taxidermy is all about visual jokes, macabre exoticism and a throwback to Victorian whimsy. If only Walter Potter could see the wonders his kittens in frilly knickers have wrought.