Houses & Rabbits–Beatrix Potter’s world through her art
Posted on January 13, 2017
Beatrix Potter is best known for her children’s stories featuring wonderfully rendered anthropomorphic animals, but coinciding with her 150 birthday as well as Linda Lear’s reissue of her now classic biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, there has been quite a bit of recent coverage of her life and work. After hearing a fascinating NPR interview on Science Friday with Ms. Lear about her book, I was interested to see more of her other works–notably, her drawings of nature, animals and fungi.
I grew up with the stories of Beatrix Potter and they always remind me of grandmother, in particular The Tailor of Gloucester which was her favorite, which I learned that later in her life Beatrix claimed was her favorite of her “little books” as well. Her financial success came from her children’s books, most famously The Tale of Peter Rabbit which sold 45 million copies. Her collection of books have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide as well as being adapted for films and television and inspiring a wide array of merchandise through the years.
As a young lady she and her brother studied and drew their pets and the natural world around them. She was keenly interested in all of the natural sciences–except for astronomy–and specifically became very interested in entomology and mycology. They had quite a menagerie of pets and it is said that when they passed away they would boil them down to bones to study their anatomy and bone structure.
She took great care in rendering animals, bugs and fungi, often using a microscope to examine and re-create the details at scale. Take, for example, her rendering of butterflies including the details of color and texture of the wings.
Many of her fungus paintings are exhibited at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. There is an ongoing debate over weather she made significant contributions to science or if she was simply a talented amateur. Whatever conclusions this debate brings, her renderings are fantastic and her fungus paintings are still used in mushroom classification today.
As in adult a major part of her life revolved around the raising of sheep and her country life at Hill Top House and other properties she acquired in the Lake Country. She was interested in not only preserving the land in the area, but also preserving the way of fell farming. She and her husband became involved with the National Trust–who she ended up gifting most of her property to upon her death, including what is now the Lake District National Park.
Another influence on her work were her trips and travel with her family where they stayed in other properties, including Dalguise Castle in Scotland. She would wander the woods and grounds painting what she observed as well as making studies of the homes that would find their way into her children’s books and stories.
Many times her studies would become locations in her stories, in the most memorable example the gardens at Fawe Park are said to be the real Mr. McGregor’s garden in Peter Rabbit. Often she would try to find and paint perspectives that she imagined a rabbit would like.
Another home that she liked to visit was the home of her aunt and uncle in Gwaynynog in Denbign. After her first husbands sudden death, she fled with two of her rabbits to their home where she worked on The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. Utilizing her skills at sketching outdoors she worked on back round sketches that helped inform her book.
The legacy of her life and work lives on in many forms; her books, merchandise and fantasy characters, her land preservation in the lake District, the conservation of many of the houses and estates where she stayed in her lifetime, as well as her fabulous representations of plants, fungi and animals. I love the world as seen through her artistic pursuits–the real and the fairy tales comfortably sharing the same landscapes and origins through her hand and imagination.