Sunday, May 31, 2020

Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy by Pat Morris

"What are you reading right now?" "Oh, you know, a book about an excellent British guy who collected dead animal corpses and then stuffed them and put them in dioramas."
-A completely normal conversation to have

I would estimate that about 25% of the books I read are your usual book blogger fare: popular new releases, beloved classics, things that normal people enjoy. These reviews are typically what people know me for, since those are the ones that get the most attention, so I imagine that the people who click that "follow" button are then in for a wicked surprise when they discover the other 75% of what I read: problematic and out of print bodice-rippers from the 1970s and 1980s (to laugh at, but also to enjoy secretly), books with low GR ratings that all my friends hate, adult manga, and nonfiction about taxidermy.


I found out about this book from karen, who is one of my go-tos for weird books. I really enjoy weird facts about history and the Victorians had weird history down to an art form (literally). When people think Victorian, they probably think corset or pointy-tipped manor, but there was a dark edge to all of that arsenic-gilded finery. The Victorians were death-obsessed, and it wasn't uncommon for them to wear a locket with the hair of a dead loved one around their neck, or, if they were wealthy enough and wished to show off that wealth in all of its morbid splendor, they might have a curiosity cabinet.

Curiosity cabinets were where a lot of Victorians kept things like tableaux and domes filled with pastoral scenes of nature-- all dead. Dead butterflies in cases, stuffed animals (no, not the cute kind), shells and corals, and perhaps even a skeleton or two. WALTER POTTER'S CURIOUS WORLD OF TAXIDERMY is about a British guy who lived in Victorian times and preserved animal bodies because he was bored, posing them into scenes from folklore and nursery rhymes, or else to display typical events of the times (such as the kitten wedding, the frog park, and the bunny school). Eventually, all these things got put into a museum that lasted for about one hundred years and people would go to this museum and pay money to see all these dead things because ART!

I really enjoyed this book. It's morbid, but I can be a regular Wednesday Addams at times, despite my pastel-clad appearance and my love of all things romance. The detail and level of artistry that went in to all these scenes truly is incredible, and I loved the tongue-in-cheek tone of the writer, who struck a really nice balance between conversational tone and informative passages. Obviously, as the years went on and people developed a more salient sense of animal cruelty, feelings about the museum shifted towards disgust. The last chapter of the book is about the selling off of the individual displays (once managed by a distant relative of Barbara Cartland!), and some of the more disgusting "freaks" that Walter Potter had, such as supernumerary-legged animals and conjoined twins.

If you have a sense of the morbid and enjoy weird books about weird shit, I recommend WALTER POTTER'S CURIOUS WORLD OF TAXIDERMY. It's disturbingly fun, and I've reread it multiple times, always picking up on a new detail or tidbit that I somehow missed before.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

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