Caught by the River

Everything Counts

26th October 2010

by Robin

The initial shock isn’t that I’m looking at a picture of a Victorian circus dwarves. No, the shock comes from that fact that the picture is one of many. There must be a couple of hundred framed photos, each with a bleachy, sepia portrait of single performers, pairs or troupes. The photographic parade stretches the length of the room, pictures running up the wall in rows four or five deep. It’s overwhelming. And it’s utterly fantastic.

The Museum of Everything sits just off the main drag of Primrose Hill, unobtrusively down an alleyway in what was once a recording studio called Mayfair. The warren like space houses the third Museum of Everything show, one that’s made up of ephemera owned by the pop artist Peter Blake. Showcasing wonderfully kleptomaniac tendencies, Blake’s amassed display gathers the weird and weirder still elements of circus life (giant’s shoes, distortion mirrors, steam fair paraphernalia) and lays them out with the kind of forensic zeal you’d expect from any modern art gallery. If the underlying idea of the Museum is to offer a showcase for ‘outsider art’, Blake’s collection is about as anti-establishment as it’s possible to be.

Much like Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s brilliant Folk Archive collection (donated to and now housed by the British Council), it shines a light on embroiderers, flag makers and true eccentrics like Walter Potter. Potter’s taxidermy dioramas showing animals mimicking human life are legendary in certain circles. Damien Hirst tried to buy the entire collection a few years back to keep it together in one place but had his offer turned down by Bonhams the auction house. The pieces in this Museum of Everything exhibition are surreal to the point of near-psychedelia. ‘The Death and Burial of Cock Robin’ and other verses are brought to ‘life’ with stuffed animals. A proto-animation of a squirrel boxing match (complete with bloodied faces and gloves) takes place in eight framed boxes. Pretty much every creature you can conceive of has been stuffed and given new life here in the twisted work of one visionary Victorian gentleman.

The whole thing is wonderfully trippy; often both hilarious and deeply poignant. The exhibits in the Museum of Everything are like fading snapshots of a forgotten world – one where stuffing rabbits and posing them in a classroom setting is perfectly acceptable practice. It’s charming and brilliant. I really can’t urge you strongly enough to go.

Peter Blake’s collection is on display in at the Museum of Everything in North London until Christmas.