I was in my early twenties when I discovered his work. Fresh from a mushroom-hunting hike, buzzing with the elation that could only come from the mossy green sharpness of an early spring afternoon combined with the questionable fruits of the expedition having their assault on what I thought were my senses (but more likely, my digestion). My adventure had ended much too early, and I found myself looking for relief in the campus library with what I loved most-animal folklore and mythology. The library had just unveiled a computer-based catalogue, full of bugs and reliably so, as was most digital technology in 2003. And so, my search for 'Aesopica' resulted in articles about iron deficiency, while 'Baphomet' resulted in archived issues of Better Homes and Gardens from 1950-60, and Beatrix Potter resulted in Walter Potter.
Although Beatrix and Walter Potter are of no familial relation, both were a product of an era in which society was literally surrounded by death. The average lifespan was half of what it is today, and it was not uncommon to have been born, died, and buried in one’s home. Elaborate funerary rituals and post-mortem photographs were normal, even encouraged, as was allowing corpses to rot for days before burial; to verify that death had indeed set in, as a safeguard against being buried alive. Survivors would collect and covet memento mori, clutching onto the trinkets that held the memories, or even partial remains, of their beloved deceased, and as reminders of their own mortality. It seems only natural that the practice of taxidermy came into vogue, as a way for hunters to preserve their taken trophies, capturing the seemingly fleeting beauty of life in death. In popular culture, fantasy and whimsy would come into favourability too, though instead of serving only as a necessary distraction from the daily abundance of perishing and pestilence, it would also serve as a way to embrace the inevitability of it all.
With those first grainy images of his work, I was enchanted not by Mr Potter’s technique, but by his intention. Like many others, I fell in love with his attention to detail, and of course, those frilly kitten knickers (!!!). Beyond that, I was touched by the simple question that seemed to be posed by each anthropomorphic tableaux – what is life but a spectacular charade, and why shouldn’t we revel in its divinely mundane rituals, whether they are arithmetic lessons, tea parties, or cricket matches? These outlandish fantasies exposed the small joys and wonders of everyday life, and pushed me to look for magic in the seemingly normal daily routine. In his work, I saw so much. There was passion and diligence – over his short life, he mounted and collected over 10,000 species, and being primarily self-taught, it is hard to argue that anything was impossible. I saw the error in themes of 'darkness' and 'morbidity' being applied as default to any work that uses deceased animals, as it would not even be an option in any other art form to automatically allow the medium used to dictate the theme. What is this wonderful space between 'cute' and 'uncomfortable', and why it is that the 'sweet' and the 'fetid' are always so intertwined? Sure, I saw part of myself, but more importantly, I saw humanity – all that is humorous, frightening, and something in between. I saw the love that remains after one is gone.
A few years later, I took the same hike during the winter, and stumbled upon a field mouse, frozen to death, almost presented in its own tableaux of a snowy bed and icy pillow. With tears, I harvested its perfectly still body, and had my first attempt at taxidermy. The resulting piece was lacking a few things (beauty being one of them). However, I felt the sacred satisfaction of reanimation; the thrill and wonder of being able to take something dead, on its way to being forgotten, then charge it with a new, fantastic life, as a creature that may or may not be of this world. Thanks to Walter Potter, I had finally found my neverending adventure.
This post is by Divya Anantharaman who teaches taxidermy – anthropomorphic and otherwise! – at The Morbid Anatomy Art Academy; you can find out more about her at d-i-v-y- a.com and facebook.com/DivyaTaxidermy.