Apparently, looking at cats doing adorable things was just as popular during the Victorian Era as it is today—the only difference is that the cats the Victorians were looking at were posthumously arranged by an idiosyncratic Englishman. Taxidermy: Art, Science & Immortality Featuring Walter Potter’s Kittens’ Wedding is an exhibition at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, where the works of Walter Potter can be seen, along with an upcoming anthropomorphic taxidermy workshop based on his work. As The Morbid Anatomy Museum’s co-founder and creative director Joanna Ebenstein tells The Creators Project: “Today, taxidermy is seen as edgy at best, creepy at worst; this was not the case in the 19th century, when most of the pieces in this show were created. Instead, taxidermy was seen as a genteel craft appropriate for ladies, with women's magazines even publishing how-to guides. [...] It was also an era in which natural science in general was very popular, with families spending time looking through microscopes, collecting seaweed at the beach, or keeping ferns at home. Taxidermy--both crafting and collecting--was a part of this broader culture phenomenon.”
The Kitten’s Wedding (c1890), the centerpiece of the exhibition, was arguably the Keyboard Cat of its time and, just like the viral video, features felines engaging in human activities. The Kittens Wedding features a sizable group of taxidermied kittens and Potter paid incredible attention to detail on each one, right down to the lace on the dresses, which were made by his neighbors and daughter.
According to Ebenstein, the original display notes in Potter’s own museum read: “20 little kittens are taking part in this colorful ceremony. The bride is wearing a dress of cream brocade, with a long veil and orange blossom, the six bridesmaids are dressed in pink or cream, the chief bridesmaid and the bride are probably sisters, and the little ‘boy’ wearing the sailor suit is their younger brother for they all have the same fair colouring. Under the watchful eye of the parson, the bridegroom, with head on side, has just placed the golden ring on the bride’s finger, The tiny prayer books are open at the ‘marriage service,’ but the parson, who possibly does not need a book anyway, has failed to turn the page.
It is a pity that such a happy occasion should have a jarring note, but the scowl of disapproval on the face of the ‘man’ in the row next to the back seems to indicate that he thinks the wrong ‘man’ is marrying the bride!”
Over 100 years after it was created, it’s easy to see why this work was so popular in its time and even today, Potter still has his fair share of admirers. Damien Hirst once attempted to purchase Potter’s entire collection, saying, "My own favorites are these tableaux: there's a kittens' wedding party, with all these kittens dressed up in costumes, even wearing jewelry. The kittens don't look much like kittens, but that's not the point.” And, before hosting the current exhibition Ebenstein even co-authored a book about Potter’s work with British biologist and taxidermy historian Dr. Pat Morris. “I also had the privilege to photograph a number of Potter pieces in the homes of the post-museum owners. When we decided to open the Morbid Anatomy Museum, we wanted our first exhibition to be about Walter Potter, but it proved too ambitious and expensive,” says Ebenstein.
Luckily, those who are still interested in taxidermy these days will have the opportunity to learn the preservation technique when The Morbid Anatomy Museum holds a workshop in anthropomorphic taxidermy later this month. As Ebenstein explains, “Participants can expect to leave with a finished piece of their own, and the skills and knowledge to make their own pieces in the future. And in this they already have an advantage over Walter Potter, whose work was the inspiration for this class; he was self taught, and never had the benefit of lessons!”
Taxidermy: Art, Science & Immortality Featuring Walter Potter’s Kittens’ Wedding is open through Noveber 6th, and keep an eye out for the ongoing events at The Morbid Anatomy Museum on their website.