Kitten wedding, from taxidermist Walter Potter's Museum of Curiosity. Photograph: Museum of Everything
The wild and eerie Victorian world of Walter Potter, where baby rabbits go to school and weep over their blotted copybooks, and where Bullingdon Club-style squirrels puff on cigars as toads play leapfrog and rat police raid a drinking den, is being reassembled in London, seven years after his creatures were sold and scattered across the world.
The displays are being assembled at the reopened Museum of Everything, a pop-up museum in a former Victorian dairy, and later recording studio, in Primrose Hill, London.
Damien Hirst, who built his international fame on creatures such as his shark, and Sir Peter Blake, who is co-curator of the exhibition, have each lent pieces for the show. Both regard Potter as a genius, and his work as a national treasure which should have been kept together for permanent public display.
Other loans for the exhibition, opening next Wednesday, come from the comedian Harry Hill, the photographer David Bailey, other passionate private enthusiasts, and Pat Morris, a retired academic and expert on the history of taxidermy who intends to leave his own collection to a museum.
Hirst has contributed a truly Hirstian piece, called Happy Families, in which Potter has assembled natural "enemies" including cats, a dog, birds, squirrels, rats, mice and a tortoise, in a distinctly uneasy truce.
Blake's treasures include The House that Jack Built, which has a miniature hen – which Potter made by sticking feathers to a wooden mould – watching over a nest of wren's eggs, and The Babes in the Wood, another piece with a more than slightly creepy air.
Morris owns the largest piece, which was always the star attraction in the museum. The Death of Cock Robin, which displays more than 100 birds including a weeping robin widow and an owl gravedigger who has tumbled some tiny bones out of the soil while preparing space for the dead robin. It normally occupies one entire wall of Morris's guest bedroom in Ascot.
The beautifully painted backgrounds of the tableaux show the fields, woods and buildings of Bramber, the West Sussex village where Potter spent his long life. He was born in 1835, left school at 14, taught himself taxidermy (starting with a pet bird), and perfected his art with specimens donated by friends.
He opened his museum in a shed behind his father's pub. It proved so popular, boosting the pub trade dramatically, that the brewery created a purpose-built museum, which Potter ran until his death in 1918.
The museum was taken over by his son-in-law, who died in 1969; it was then sold and moved first to Brighton, then to Arundel, and finally to Jamaica Inn in Cornwall. When the last owners retired, and their taxidermist, who took care of the collection, died, there was an attempt to sell the collection as a whole. But finally it was scattered, after a Bonham's auction where pieces sold for up to £20,000 to collectors from all over the world.
The founder of the Museum of Everything, James Brett, who made his money in films and property, opened the first exhibition of the "outsider art" he collects, including work made in prisons and mental health units, last year as a fringe event for the Frieze Art Fair. It was intended to run for a fortnight but was repeatedly extended due to public interest – and the free cafe – and by the time it finally did close had attracted more than 35,000 visitors.
He intended this time to re-create the glorious chaos of Blake's studio. The artist who created the cover for the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper is a collector and hoarder on an epic scale, and the exhibition will include some of his toys, shells, advertising ephemera and giant circus banners.
"The idea of re-creating the Potter museum began as a chance remark from Peter, and it became an obsession to bring the band back together," Brett said.
"It has taken over my life. But Potter is worth it, he was a true original, and himself absolutely an outsider artist as much as a craftsman. I can tell a Potter from the work of another taxidermist at a glance across a room – he was a genius."
Phone calls were still coming in every day from Potter fanatics, he said. The three-legged pig, the two-headed lamb and the four-winged chicken are already in place, but he has despaired of getting the kittens' wedding back from the US. He still hopes the rabbits' school, and the guinea pigs playing cricket, a piece believed to be in France, may yet turn up.
Morris, who began taxidermy himself aged seven with a dead squirrel, helped by a Boys Own guide to the subject, says that Potter was a very bad taxidermist all of his life: his birds were puff-chested because he fitted the skins over the wrong size bodies, and his cats had teddy bear eyes.
But Potter's genius was in his ability to create an entire miniature world, the world of a Victorian village which he knew intimately. The pieces are obsessively detailed, and full of tiny jokes for the observant: in the squirrels' club one creature is rejoicing over a winning hand, not realising that the viewer can see his opponent's even better cards. There are cases of stuffed birds on the club walls, and paintings the size of postage stamps signed by one W Potter.
The displays were never to everyone's taste. Many thought they were grotesque and an abuse of animals, despite the poster insisting that none had been killed deliberately for the collection. The animals did not die quietly in their sleep, though: Spot the dog, owned by a friend of Potter's, killed most of the rats for the drinking den and other scenes, and when she died she was stuffed and added to the collection.
Morris robustly defends taxidermy against the political correctness which he believes helped doom the collection. "Blaming taxidermy for the large number of rare species in glass cases is as illogical as blaming undertakers for all the dead people in cemeteries."
The Museum of Everything will run at least until Christmas.
Monday, October 11, 2010
Oh Oh Oh! Coming to the Museum of Everything! Genius or grotesquery? The arrestingly strange world of Walter Potter | Culture | The Guardian