Leap Into the Surprising, Art-Filled Life of Beatrix Potter in a New Exhibition
The beloved author of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” also wrote diaries in code, sketched fungi and raised prize-winning sheep
Early on in her career, beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) paid several visits to the local museum in her native South Kensington, London.
She went to make sketches of a silk 18th-century man’s waistcoat that had been expertly embroidered with neat pink, blue and green flowers. To Potter’s eye, the jacket’s button-hole stitches were “so small—so small—they looked as if they had been made by little mice!” Drawing from local legend about a miraculously appeared waistcoat, Potter wrote and illustrated her own version of events, where a poor tailor’s business is saved from ruin by a crew of singing, sewing mice.
That story became The Tailor of Gloucester (1902), one of Potter’s dozens of books that have collectively sold more than 250 million copies to date. And the museum where Potter sketched is now the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), which recently opened a new exhibition dedicated to the unconventional, art- and animal-filled life of Potter herself.
Titled “Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature,” the show explores the art and stories behind Potter’s world-famous creations, such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, as well as her lesser-known achievements as a sheep breeder and a scientific illustrator of fungi and beetles. Museumgoers can visit in-person through January 2023, while viewers can also watch videos, read biographical essays and explore close-up reproductions of Potter’s finely detailed drawings online.
Some sketches on display date to when Potter was just 8 or 9 years old, as Sarah Cascone reports for Artnet News. Highlights of the more than 200 objects on view include rarely seen Potter family photographs; the author’s muddy clogs, used for outdoor traipsing and farming; and her walking stick, complete with an inset magnifying glass that allowed her to better study the natural world, according to a V&A statement.
Potter’s passion for nature takes center stage in this exhibition, as co-curator Annemarie Bilclough tells Artnet News. “[T]he theme of nature underpins everything she did,” the curator says.
Potter grew up a sheltered, creative child in Victorian-era London. Their controlling parents kept Potter and her brother, Bertram, isolated from other children for fear that they might “catch germs,” according to the National Trust.
As Bilclough notes in the V&A statement, “Potter was a ‘town mouse’ longing to be a country mouse.” She longed to be in nature but lived in London for the first 47 years of her life, so she often had to settle for museums, libraries and gardens. She and her brother kept dozens of beloved pets—more than 90 throughout Potter’s life—and collected insects, hedgehogs, snakes, and owls in their family home.
Potter’s first career ambition was to become a mycologist. She worked for a time at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where she channeled her lifelong passion for art into meticulously detailed renderings of various fungi. Potter even once attempted to submit a scientific paper on spore germination to the Linnean Society—but eventually withdrew, per a V&A biography.
As a teenager and well into adulthood, Potter wrote all her diaries in a cryptic secret code. Subsequent researchers only managed to crack it in the 1960s, reports Anna Russell for the New Yorker.
Several of these rarely seen drawings of mushrooms are on view at the V&A. “Many will be familiar with the extraordinary legacy of Potter’s storybooks, but in this exhibition they will discover how her talent at making her characters real emerged from a long-standing curiosity for the small details of nature, which could have led her down a different career path,” adds Bilclough in the statement.
Her parents hoped to groom their daughter to become a live-in housekeeper and caretaker, per the New Yorker. But it was Potter’s knack for telling stories that eventually won her financial and personal independence. In letters to the children of her former governess, Potter would write down stories about her pet rabbits, Peter Piper and Benjamin Bouncer, and illustrated them with lively sketches. (These rabbits would inspire two of Potter’s most famous characters, the mischievous Peter Rabbit and his cousin Benjamin Bunny.)
When the children’s mother suggested that Potter turn these stories into a published book, Potter created the manuscript for Peter Rabbit and began pitching her creation to publishing houses. No editors bit until Norman Warne, of Frederick Warne & Co., agreed to publish the first edition of Peter Rabbit in 1902.
The book was an immediate and enduring best-seller: In the 120 years since its publication, Peter Rabbit has never gone out of print, per the museum statement. Buoyed by her success, Potter set to work creating more indelible tales such as The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and the Tailor of Gloucester, per the New Yorker.
Potter became briefly engaged to Norman Warne, her editor, but he died suddenly and tragically before they could marry. In her grief and with newfound financial freedom, Potter moved to the Lakes District in the northern English countryside, buying a farmhouse and estate known as Hill Top.
At Hill Top, Potter finally realized a lifelong dream of living in close contact with nature. She became a farmer, raised prize-winning sheep for competitions and used proceeds from her books to buy the surrounding landscape and protect it from developers. She married a local lawyer, William Heelis, despite her parent’s objections. And when she died at age 77, she left more than 4,000 acres in her Hill Top estate to the National Trust, reports Artnet News.
Bilclough tells Artnet News that she hopes audiences will leave the exhibition with a deeper understanding of Potter’s determined, multifaceted personality.
“Her legacy can be seen in more than one way,” the curator adds. “We wanted take a broad view of her achievements beyond her storybooks, because there was such a wide range.”