February 2012
A review of

The Death and Burial of Cock Robin

by Walter Potter

Central Question: Is taxidermy art?
Taxidermist's lifespan: 1835–1918; Animals humanized in taxidermist's oeuvre: kittens, rats, rabbits, birds; Auctioned value of taxidermist's life’s work, in 2003: £500,000; Number of years taxidermist spent on The Death and Burial of Cock Robin: seven; Recommended if you like: Bidibidobidiboo by Maurizio Cattelan, Body Worlds exhibition, America's Funniest Home Videos (the animal clips) c. 1989–1997

By the time of his death, in 1918, Walter Potter had stuffed more than ten thousand specimens for his museum, but his greatest taxidermy tableau remains his first, The Death and Burial of Cock Robin. The work, begun when Potter was only nineteen, reenacts the funeral from the nursery rhyme of the same name, which poses a series of questions such as "Who killed Cock Robin?" ("'I,' said the sparrow, 'with my little bow and arrow'") and "Who'll dig his grave?" ("'I,' said the owl, 'with my spade and shovel'").

Nursery rhymes often contain morbid imagery: sightless mice being chased with a butcher knife ("Three Blind Mice") and birds being methodically dismembered ("Alouette"), to name two that involve animal cruelty. Just as these verses take their unsettling power from their ability to soothe the macabre (horrific death!) into the quotidian (memorable ditty!), Potter's work gains depth by casting dead animals as civilized humans: a frog shaves another frog, two guinea pigs play cricket, seventeen ginger tabby and white kittens partake in colorful pastries at a tea party. So it is in The Death and Burial of Cock Robin: Avian mourners perch on a leafless tree while others line up in pairs behind the coffin, heads lowered; several shed glass tears.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

—Jeannie Vanasco

Jeannie Vanasco wrote about erasure literature for last month's issue. A batch of her prose poems, one of which concerns a diabolical birdhouse and taxidermy, appear in the current issue of Coffin Factory.

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