My hero: Walter Potter by Kate Mosse

Whether guinea pigs playing a cricket match or kittens dressed in black tie at a wedding, Walter Potter had a wonderful way of telling stories with his taxidermy

Walter Potter was a self-taught, Victorian taxidermist who created an extraordinary museum of narrative, whimsical taxidermy that became famous all over the world. He was born – and lived his entire life – in the modest Sussex village of Bramber, a few miles north of Brighton. As a boy, he loved nature and wildlife. From manuals (and a trip to the Great Exhibition in 1851) he taught himself to skin, preserve and stuff the creatures brought to him by local farmers and family friends: cats, foxes, rats, frogs, his own pet canary.

But Potter stands out because he didn’t simply preserve the creatures in his care, rather he told stories: his tableaux were unique, retellings in fur and feathers of nursery rhymes or folktales: The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, with all the birds of the air a-sighing and a-sobbing; The Kittens’ Wedding, with each feline guest dressed in black tie or white dress; the Guinea Pigs’ Cricket Match and Band, the score forever frozen at 189 for 7, and the squirrels playing cards and smoking cigars in The Upper Ten.

I first visited Potter’s museum in the 1970s, after it had moved from Brighton to Arundel, and fell in love with the place. It wasn’t just the surreal weirdness of some of the more grotesque pieces (twin Siamese pigs suspended in a glass jar; a two-headed kitten), I was amazed by the incredible attention to detail, the love and care he had taken.

Looking back, and moved, finally, to tell my own story inspired by his work, I admire even more the fact that he created precisely what he wanted. He was not swayed by fashion or finance – though he was a canny businessman – but was driven by passion and determination. He was a man of Sussex, inspired by the landscape and local knowledge, and many of us are indebted to his imagination.

It is a great tragedy for British craftsmanship that the collection was auctioned off piecemeal in 2003 rather than being kept intact, though his legacy lives on.

• The Taxidermist’s Daughter is out now in hardback. (Orion, £16.99).

Kate Mosse

The GuardianTramp

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