My granny and grandpa used to live in Littlehampton, by the sea in West Sussex. My godmother would accompany me there for summer holidays. These week-long trips were full of magic and adventure for an 8–12 year-old. I remember an amusement park that boasted magic mirrors and a ghost train, and buying my mum silly souvenirs. I remember being ferried around in a shiny old Daimler and granny wearing gloves in the summertime. I remember sitting and reading for hours on the me-sized window seat halfway up the stairs. But most of all I remember Walter Potter's Museum of Curiosity at Arundel.
The first time I visited the museum, gaining entry with a sugar-paper ticket, I was quite overwhelmed by the knowledge that lambs and kittens could be born with supernumerary heads and legs. That was my main impression. Back in Kew my home was populated by an unusual variety of pets – a dog, cats, a tortoise, guinea pigs, rabbits, ducks, chickens, piranhas, catfish, hamsters, rats, mice, gerbils, grass-snakes, salamanders, a chinchilla – and to see such aberrant specimens moved me deeply. These pickled, mutant baby animals had a peaceful air. I ascribed them a special dignity; something akin to the good character of John Hurt's Elephant Man, in the David Lynch-directed film I had seen. They also got me thinking about biological processes.
On subsequent visits to Potter's museum I became more aware of the vast range of exhibits and began to see why my godmother, an artist who always seemed to be sketching, found the anthropomorphic tableaux so remarkable. The poses of the kittens, squirrels, rats, birds and rabbits displayed highly readable body-language, evoking miniature fantasy worlds that were all the more potent for being built from real animals. I felt that Walter Potter was in some way reanimating their little souls and giving them an afterlife.
The old post office that housed the museum at Arundel was only little and, while deeply absorbed in gazing at a piece, one was often interrupted by 'excuse-me's and nudges. I have always remembered feeling keenly aware of the other visiting children, whose eye-level would be similar to mine, as I wondered whether any might also be experiencing vivid emotions that they were unable to express. I knew that a fascination with this collection might be judged unseemly in a little girl, so I made sure I didn't talk about it too often or too excitedly.
When I grew up and began looking for interesting ideas for illustrated books, I ordered a copy of Pat Morris's Walter Potter and his Museum of Curious Taxidermy, with a view to creating a new edition. I went to visit Pat and his wife Mary, who made me welcome in their Surrey home. I felt blessed to view Potter's largest anthropomorphic taxidermy tableau, The Original Death & Burial of Cock Robin, away from the crowds in their spare bedroom. We lamented that Potter's collection had been scattered by the Bonhams auction in 2003. He told me about Joanna Ebenstein, who ran the brilliant Morbid Anatomy Library and blog in New York, was a big Potter fan, and might help with American distribution. Pat showed me around his magical collection, which took nearly three hours and taught me much about taxidermy.
I met Joanna Ebenstein who was visiting London. We immediately got on, so I asked her if she would be interested in working on a new edition of Pat's book, tracking down the key pieces for new photography and revising the text for a wider audience. Her enthusiasm matched mine and, even despite the rush to publish in time for the tenth anniversary of the auction, we have had a lot of fun working on this project. There have been great highs, such as when Joanna went to photograph the Kittens' Wedding and Kittens' Tea Party at a private collection in Chicago, or when Ronni Thomas, the talented filmmaker of The Midnight Archive series, expressed his desire to make a Potter film, or when Stephen Coates came up with beguiling original music for said film. Along the way, we attended a booksellers' presentation and heard an extraordinary story [to be posted soon], and we were honoured to receive a message by Walter Potter's great-great-granddaughter, Charlotte, who was adopted aged four and had only recently tracked down her biological father, Walter's daughter Minnie's grandson.
Then there was the magical day that Joanna and I visited Sir Peter Blake. I had heard lovely things about him and we were immediately put at ease as we entered his studio. We sat in the kitchen and said goodbye to a jolly Dara O'Briain, who had been having a look around, then Peter suggested we had a cup of tea. We and his lovely agent, Charlotte Hanlon from the Central Illustration Agency, sat and chatted for over an hour. Around us were countless treasures. Just in that little kitchen there was an original Eric Gill etching, a paper tablecloth that Patrick Caulfield had sketched for Peter in the south of France and a Laurel & Hardy storyboard. Peter gave us a detailed tour around his studio's many rooms, clean and orderly but packed with his Sgt Pepper figures, David Nash sculptures, extraordinarily colourful tapestries of pin-up girls by Ted Wilcox (very reminiscent of Grayson Perry's recent tapestries on the Vanity of Small Differences), a beautiful little painting by his friend Harry Hill, shrines to boxing and to his family, exquisite new collage drawings of Under Milk Wood... and so much more. By the time we got around to photographing Peter's Potters in his mini-Potter-museum, both Joanna and I were seriously devoted to the man. The charming foreword that he handwrote and couriered over to me is itself a work of art.
Sir Peter Blake cherishes his Potters, and many of those who visited Potter's Museum in its various locations feel as passionately as I did about its contents. Even those who only know the pieces via photographs on the internet recognise Potter's work as unique. Potter influenced many contemporary artists and a whole new wave of taxidermists; quite something for a 'self-taught country taxidermist of no great expertise'. I think our book looks lovely, and really showcases Pat's brilliantly droll writing. Another edition of the book will soon be published in the US by Penguin's Blue Rider imprint. It is my, Pat's and Joanna's hope that Walter Potter's collection will continue to inspire and fascinate fans both old and new for decades to come.
Commissioning Editor, Constable Illustrated