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Two African Figures from Mr Potter’s Remarkable Museum
Walter Potter was born in the Sussex village of Bramber in 1835. As a boy he was fascinated by nature and the world of taxidermy. Walter’s parents kept the White Lion (now the Castle) in Bramber and Walter, who had started to practice taxidermy, moved his specimens into the pub’s stable loft. In 1851 the Great Exhibition was held in London’s Hyde Park and one exhibitor, Hermann Plouquet, displayed “The Comical Creatures from Wurtemberg”, a selection of stuffed animals in human situations. This style of presentation became highly popular and may have inspired the young Walter Potter, who soon began producing similar tableaux. There is no evidence that Potter actually attended the Great Exhibition, but he would almost certainly have seen Plouquet’s book, also titled “The Comical Creatures from Wurtemberg”, which sold well in England. One visitor who did attend the Great Exhibition was Queen Victoria, who found Plouquet’s display “very impressive”.
Walter Potter in later life
Walter Potter was only 19 years old when he produced the first of his own tableaux. This was “The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin” and he was inspired by a book of stories that belonged to his younger sister. The scene was set within a large glass case and contained all manner of stuffed birds, including Cock Robin’s funeral cortege, the Sparrow who killed poor Cock Robin with his bow and arrow, Parson Rook, who conducted the burial service, and the sexton Owl. Later works included a scene of two grey squirrels fighting a duel with swords. It was titled The Death.
The Death by Walter Potter
Clearly the customers at the White Lion liked Walter’s work. By 1861 so many people were calling to see the exhibits that Walter had to move them in to a summer house behind the inn. He moved them again in 1866 and, in 1880, he put his collection into a newly built building in Bramber. This was the “Potter’s Museum” which, alongside the tableaux of animals and birds, also exhibited natural curiosities, such as two-headed lambs and four-legged chickens, much to the delight of local children and their parents. The museum also began to exhibit items from around the world, including some pieces from Africa.
When Walter Potter died in 1918 the museum continued to be run by Walter’s daughter and grandson. It was sold in the early 1970’s and moved, first to Brighton, and then to Arundel, two Sussex towns. In the mid 1980’s the museum moved for a final time, on this occasion to the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, a one-time smuggler’s haunt that had been immortalised by Daphne duMaurier in her novels. The collection, now comprising some 10,000 items, was finally sold at auction in 2003. Prior to the sale a campaign was started to try to keep the collection together and it is rumoured that the artist Damien Hirst offered to buy the entire collection. This would have been quite appropriate, considering Hirst’s own involvement with preserved animals! But the sale went ahead and the items were dispersed, some of Walter Potter’s taxidermy pieces being bought by another artist, Peter Blake. According to Blake:
I’d seen the collection in Bramber. I’d been cycling as a kid, probably only about 12, I should think or possibly a bit older. In the village of Bramber there’s a pub and the Museum was opposite the pub. Apparently the pub belonged to Mr Potter’s father so he started making things in the pub and then they built the building to house the Museum. So I saw it as a boy but I didn’t see it at Brighton or Arundel but picked up on it again at Jamaica Inn and saw it a couple of times there before it came up for sale.
Peter Blake attended the sale and he…
…put a limit of £10,000 on myself to get whatever I could within that amount, and I only went over by about £100. So there were certain things I would have loved to have had that I dropped out of the bidding when I knew I couldn’t have them within my limit.
The idea was always to create a capsule of Mr Potter’s collection. (The tableau) of Who Killed Cock Robin was about the third thing to be sold and it went for £20,000 so that was well above my budget; but then rather freakily when The House that Jack Built came up, a car backfired outside the pub during the bidding and it sounded like a gunshot so it got people’s attention. There was a kind of lull in the auction just for a second or two, but it stopped the bidding and the bid was with me when the gunshot (sic) went off. The next bid didn’t come so it was knocked down to me. It certainly was a bargain.
Blake, a collector of all kinds of exotica, exhibited some of his Potter works in a Museum of Everything exhibition in London in 2010. In 2011 the Holburne Museum in Bath also included some Potter works in Blake’s exhibition A Museum for Myself. The accompanying well-illustrated exhibition catalogue is fascinating. 
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