I came away from the Victoria & Albert Museum feeling very moved by its ‘Beatrix Potter’s London’ exhibition, which explores the role of London, Beatrix’s “unloved birth place”, in her life and work. Thanks to this exhibition – which marks the 150th anniversary of Beatrix’s birth – I also felt that I had come to know her a little better.
Because of the subject matter of her books, we tend to associate Beatrix with the countryside – in particular the Lake District, where she spent the latter part of her life – so I was interested to find out in what ways, if any, London had an influence upon her character and upon her writing. This exhibition – which is compact but incredibly informative – includes letters, watercolour paintings, pencil sketches and various copies of her books, all of which combine to form an interesting portrait of this formidable woman.
Beatrix was born in 1866 and grew up in South Kensington, where she resided until her marriage and subsequent move to the Lake District at the age of 47. Like most girls of her generation, she was educated at home and her education included some private art tuition, although in respect of art she considered herself to be primarily self-taught, commenting that the key to developing as an artist “lies chiefly within oneself”. The exhibition includes several watercolours Beatrix painted as a teenager, of the view from her family’s home, 2 Bolton Gardens, and it is evident that from a young age she was a highly promising artist.
Beatrix was fortunate to come from an artistic family which supported her in her own various artistic pursuits. Her father, Rupert Potter, was a keen amateur photographer and counted John Everett Millais among his friends; Beatrix visited JEM’s studio a number of times and found the painter supportive of her talent. She was also influenced by painters such as William Henry Hunt and John Constable – and her copy of one of Constable’s Lake District watercolours features in the exhibition.
Her love of animals has been well-documented and she kept quite the menagerie at home – rabbits, mice, lizards and bats all came under Beatrix’s care and provided inspiration for her drawings – particularly her much-loved pet rabbit Peter Piper, who was the inspiration behind one of the most famous children’s books characters of all time: Peter Rabbit. What is less well-known is that Beatrix also had a keen interest in mycology – the study of fungi – and made hundreds of mycological drawings, some of which are on display here. Her research into the subject (supported by frequent visits to Kew Gardens and conversations with the experts there) led her to write a paper entitled ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’, which was presented to the prestigious Linnean Society of London in 1897, when Beatrix was 30.
Despite having had an aversion to London as a child, as an adult Beatrix came to appreciate the “real interest and romance” of the city, especially its museums and galleries, to which she was a frequent visitor. The Royal Academy, Natural History Museum and this exhibition’s very own host, the V&A Museum, were particular favourite haunts; indeed, an embroidered satin waistcoat dating back to 1770 and still on display at the V&A was sketched by Beatrix and used as the mayor’s waistcoat in ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’.
Hard as it may be to believe now, publishers were initially uninterested in ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, – and Beatrix took the bold decision to self-publish her first book, producing 250 copies featuring black & white illustrations. A year later, in 1902, the London-based publisher Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, this time complete with colour illustrations – and did so to great acclaim. FW&C would go on to publish all 23 of Beatrix’s books and she would collaborate closely with them on all aspects of book production. You can see the first and fourth editions of ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ in the photo attached below.
As always, it is the personal elements of the exhibition which bring it to life. I was particularly moved by Beatrix’s letter of 4th September 1893 to Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, in which Beatrix sets out the story of Peter Rabbit, introducing Noel to Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter, including sketches of them. It is the original letter which is on display (photo below) and you can’t help but wonder if Beatrix had any inkling of the phenomenal success which she would go on to achieve nearly a decade later – or the impact she would have upon generation after generation of children (including me) who would fall in love with her books.