It was a joy to see the originals of some of those famous watercolours painted by Beatrix Potter at the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Drawn to Nature. I hadn’t realised that the little books were printed to the same size as the small drawings of her characters. And they are all so charming.
But what we learn from this show is that Beatrix was precociously talented from a tender age. She and her brother Rupert were both creative and curious – encouraged by their wealthy parents and grandparents. While Rupert was sent off to school Beatrix was educated at home. She was taken to museums and also met a famous neighbour near the family’s Kensington home – John Everett Millais who could see young Beatrix’s talent and declared her not only to be a good artist but a very good observer. Beatrix made a very detailed drawing of her home school room, complete with cage for birds and equipment for scientific investigation and even taxidermy.
She became very good at making observational drawings and really getting to know the physiognomy of animals, insects, fish and birds.
Beatrix and her family would spend holidays – or days when the London house was being cleaned by the servants – in country houses, estates or her grandmother’s home at Canfield Place, which she was very fond of. She clearly loved the freedom to roam these places, really burrow into the hedgerows, examine wildlife and capture images in watercolour. She did love a busy garden and apparently brought all kinds of animals indoors to keep as pets or examine in detail.
The road to publication sounds as though it was enviably easy. She submitted some of her illustrated letters and stories she’d written to young friends and the publisher Frederick Warne immediately saw the appeal of these images and the stories and commissioned more.
Children and adults – especially those who have fond memories of poring over these books as a child (as I do) will really enjoy this show. It’s a snapshot of this clever woman’s life. Beatrix clearly held onto a lot of her own childhood work as well as artefacts and furniture, and many of these things found a permanent home in her adult home at Hilltop Farm. It’s a treat to have them in London for the duration of this show.
Beatrix Potter settled in the Lake District having bought Hilltop farm on the proceeds of her books. She became a passionate farmer and conservationist and great protector of the rural landscape of Cumbria.