Beatrix Potter’s Eye for Nature

From The Wall Street Journal:

Britain’s brief but fertile Edwardian period was a golden age of children’s literature. The first decade of the 20th century saw the stage premiere of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and the publication of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” But no writer represents the genre in its heyday better than Beatrix Potter, whose diminutive illustrated picture books gave the world Peter Rabbit, Tomasina Tittlemouse and a host of other precocious animal characters. Precise, expressive watercolor illustrations by the author were the trademark of her books, which have now sold hundreds of millions of copies.

Potter, born in 1866, didn’t publish her first book, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” until her mid-30s. She would go on to write 23 tales for children, but as early as 1913, at the height of her fame, she began to wind down her career to devote herself to sheep farming in England’s Lake District. When Potter died in 1943, she left behind a treasure trove of drawings, letters and personal effects, which form the basis of a new exhibition opening on Feb. 12 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

“Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature” includes nearly 200 artworks, books, photographs and other objects, from Potter’s childhood sketches, already demonstrating a keen eye and a steady hand, to a letter written the week before she died. Potter was raised in an upper-middle-class Unitarian clan that made a fortune from printing calico cloth; a photograph of her at 15, holding one of her many pets, shows a cosseted young Victorian. The photo also hints at a sense of thwartedness. In spite of her career, she arguably lived under the thumb of her parents until she married at the age of 47.

. . . .

A toy from the 1920s based on Potter’s character Jemima Puddle-Duck is an artifact of her enterprising forays into merchandising. A cross between J.K. Rowling and John Muir, Potter set herself up in midlife as a guardian of the Lake District’s picturesque countryside and traditional farming methods. She first visited the area on childhood vacations with her family and eventually bought up some 4,000 acres of farmland, which she left to Britain’s National Trust. A 1909 watercolor landscape in the exhibition—“View across Esthwaite Water,” painted near where she eventually settled as a farmer—seems to cross objective topography with frank affection. Later, a 1930 photograph of Potter with a shepherd and a prize-winning ewe casts the London-born writer as a timeless rustic.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes if you hit a paywall, but this should be a free link.)

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