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15 Pieces From Walter Potter, The Man Who Turned Dead Animals Into Art

15 Pieces From Walter Potter, The Man Who Turned Dead Animals Into Art


Taxidermy is a practice that many people either love or hate. There are few people that are in between. Walter Potter loved taxidermy, and he was good at it. He wasn’t a great taxidermist, but he found ways of making taxidermy into art. Unlike other taxidermists, Walter Potter turned his creations into tableaus which was unheard of at the time. He became a household name for his taxidermy tableaus which many people today still admire.

Most of us in the twenty first century believe firmly in animal rights and couldn’t imagine animals being used in pieces of art. We think of our pets as family. However, this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when cats were seen as vermin.

If you have never seen a taxidermy tableau and want to see how interesting Walter Potter could make them, here are 15 pieces from Walter Potter, the man who turned dead cats into art.

15. “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin”


Walter Potter got his start in taxidermy as a teenager. In 1861, he created his most famous tableaux. “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin” depicted a Victorian rendition of the fairytale of the same name. It took Potter nearly seven years to make, which is understandable since it is almost 2 meters wide and given the level of detail. One of the most interesting aspects of his work is that you can find up to 100 different native bird species including four that are endangered/extinct in the area. “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin” was one of the main pieces at the Walter Potter taxidermy museum until it was sold in 2003.

14. “Monkey Riding a Goat”


Another important piece in the Potter museum was the “Monkey Riding a Goat”. It is interesting since it features a monkey taking the place of a person and a goat taking the place of a horse. Potter’s tableaus often feature animals that he acquired from seemingly random places. In this case, Potter’s monkey and goat came from two accidents. The monkey was likely someone’s pet that died tragically. The people that brought it to him said that it died when it was drenched in cold water. The goat also came from an accidental death when it escaped from a nearby park.

13. “Rabbits’ Village School”


One of Walter Potter’s more ambitious tableau works was the “Rabbits’ Village School”. It featured rabbits in an old school school house in the middle of a lesson. Potter wanted to use 50 rabbits for this project. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get the full amount even though he asked around town. The tableaux was completed with 48 rabbits, two as teachers, and 46 as students. The ages of the rabbits also coincided with their roles in the tableaux. The two teacher rabbits were several months older than the student rabbits, while the students were nearly one month old.

12. “The Upper Ten”


“The Upper Ten” is closely related to another of Walter Potter’s works, “The Lower Five”. Both depict scenes with strong social commentary that was popular at the time. “The Upper Ten” features squirrels at a social club, which was a popular occurrence at the time. The squirrels are engaged in several activities that were common at social clubs as well. For example, several of the squirrels are gaining weight from their lifestyles while another squirrel serves them. Potter was trying to make a strong social comment about the differences between the upper class and lower class during the time. Compared to “The Lower Five” there is a stark contrast between the depicted lifestyles.

11. “The Lower Five”


“The Lower Five’ shows the opposite of “The Upper Ten”. Potter used several elements to show the differences between the social classes. He used rats, an undesirable animal, as the main focus of the piece. Their surroundings included a more toned down appearance which is more common for lower class social areas. Dominoes was a popular pastime for the lower class in the 1800s. Gambling is also involved which was a pastime that the upper class rarely ever participated in. Potter was an avid watcher of social classes and felt that he could use his work to bring attention to it. His opposing pieces often did receive a lot of attention, not just for their quality, but for their deeper meaning as well.

10. “The Kittens’ Wedding”


One of Walter Potter’s most famous works is “The Kittens’ Wedding” that depicts a couple of kittens getting married. He completed it in 1890, late into his career. It is an ornate tableaux with extensive attention to detail. It shows a Victorian wedding which were usually lavish events. Each kitten is dressed in full formal attire with painstaking attention to the fine details. “The Kittens’ Wedding” often garnered attention for its genuinely adorable theme and content. Many people commented on its level of quality as much as the enjoyable and relatable theme. Potter’s strange methods for collecting his tableaux animals continued in that he collected nearly all of these kittens from one place. They came from a farm that was overrun with stray cats, and the litters were limited to one so they don’t breed out of control.

9. “The Kittens’ Tea and Croquet Party”


In a similar idea, Potter created “The Kitten’s Tea and Croquet Party” to recreate the social norms of a tea party, but with kittens. It comes complete with a little tea set that accurately mimics a full size set down to the smallest detail. Interestingly, the spacing for this piece is condensed to make sure that all the kittens could fit without making the piece too large. You can see that it is a very tight fit with kittens around the table. Potter added small details that are easy to miss at first glance like the kitten that is pouring the tea is wearing a small cross necklace or some of the tea cups are actually filled.

8. “Two-headed Kitten”


Not all of Potter’s taxidermy works are made to be works of art. He worked on several pieces that showcased unusual animals as well. The “Two-headed Kitten” was made by Potter when someone brought him a kitten that was born with conjoined heads. The kitten did not live very long, only about seven days. Fortunately, Potter could not pass up the opportunity to work with such a rare specimen. Making a tableaux with the two-headed kitten would have been difficult since Potter recreates real-world situations. Instead, he took a simpler method and placed it positioned in a glass viewing dome.

7. “A Kitten with Two Bodies”


Its unusual to find natural materials for a project that are exact opposites. In this case, Potter received a second donation from a patron for his taxidermy projects. This time, it was a kitten with two bodies. More accurately, it was a set of conjoined twins that did not fully separate. Attached at the head, the kitten has all of the appendages of both kittens attached to the same body. Potter followed the same model as the “Two-headed Kitten” in that he went with a simple class viewing dome without a backdrop. It was such an unusual specimen that he felt that no further backstory or creative work was needed.

6. “The Happy Family”


Continuing his commentary on social norms throughout his life, Potter created “The Happy Family”. It shows a scene in a forest where all of the different animal species are represented, and they all live peacefully together. The development of this piece was painstaking as it required the collection and processing of a wide range of animal species. Potter also used painting to add other animals to the backdrop that were difficult to acquire or too large for the tableaux. Interestingly, humans do not appear to be represented which is believed to be a comment on how people remove themselves from nature.

5. “Chemist Shop”


Drug stores have changed significantly over the years. They are far more clinical than they used to be. In Walter Potter’s days, they often resembled other stores except bottles of potentially dangerous concoctions lined the shelves. Potter created a tableaux featuring a lady shopping for medicines in a chemist shop. The tableaux uses a pair of squirrels, while the lady has two pet animals. It is an interesting look at how chemist shops existed in the 1800s and early 1900s. This tableaux, while exquisite in its details, has a simpler and more working class design than many of his other works.

4. “The Guinea Pigs’ Cricket Match”


Cricket was another popular pastime during Walter Potter’s lifetime. It was a pastime that was interesting for all social classes. However, his depiction focuses on the an upper class game. He uses a total of 34 guinea pigs to create the scene. A good number of them are used for the band that is playing at the game. It is an interesting comparison to many college or professional sporting events today complete with bands as well. There is also a lunch table complete with waiters, which would likely only be found at an upper class game. Again, Potter focuses on adept observations of social norms to create a lifelike tableaux.

3. “Athletic Toads”


One of Walter Potter’s more recognizable pieces, “Athletic Toads” showcases 18 different toads playing in a park on human playground equipment. All of the toads are native to the United Kingdom, many of which can still be found in the area today. The taxidermied toads are shown playing together on a seesaw and on swings. None of the toads wear clothing, though their actions are distinctly human. It is an interesting juxtaposition of human-like traits with the cartoonish look of the toads. Compared to many of Potter’s other works, it has a very subtle depiction of social norms. There isn’t much in the way of social class comparisons, but it is a fun depiction of a playful day in the park.

2. “The Squire and the Parson after Dinner”


Many of Walter Potter’s pieces utilized entire animal corpses that he then taxidermied, dressed up, and staged in his tableaux. However, there are other occasions when Walter Potter took pieces of animal carcasses and did something completely unique. In his 1884 piece titled, “The Squire and the Parson after Dinner,” Potter used lobster parts to reconstruct two gentlemanly characters made almost entirely out of lobster. The lobster characters wore eye glasses and smoked from pipes. They both wore jackets and appear to be having a jovial conversation. The piece recently sold in London to a new buyer for several thousand dollars.

1. “Two Red Squirrels”


Labelled by those in the Victorian era as “Humorous Taxidermy,” Walter Potter’s pieces often portrayed animals in anthropomorphic scenes. In this piece, sometimes referred to as the “Anthropomorphic Tableaux of Two Red Squirrels Engaged in a Fencing Match” shows two red squirrels holding swords. One seems to have the upper hand and is close to winning the fencing match. Despite the fact that the squirrels are clearly engaging in a human activity, they are not wearing any clothes like other squirrels found in various Walter Potter pieces. The red squirrels are also fencing in an outdoor scene, not in a human specific setting.

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